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TV Journalist Is Arrested as Assaults on Press Freedom Rise in India

MUMBAI, India — One of India’s most famous television journalists was arrested Wednesday on charges of abetting a suicide, a move criticized by politicians and members of the news media as an attempt to muzzle the press.

The journalist, Arnab Goswami, a conservative news anchor, was arrested by the Mumbai police after a high-voltage drama at his residence in the city, India’s financial capital.

“This is not the way to treat the press,” Prakash Javadekar, India’s information and broadcasting minister, said in a tweet.

Mr. Goswami has made a name for himself shouting down opponents, embracing right-wing causes and aggressively backing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-leaning administration.

Many saw the arrest as a vendetta against Mr. Goswami for his criticism of the Mumbai police over a recent homicide investigation, as well as the latest example of an assault on press freedoms in India that has come from many directions.

The twist in this case is that Mumbai, which is part of Maharashtra State, is controlled by an opposition political party. Some commentators said that what the Mumbai authorities were doing was similar to the pressure that the Modi administration has put on progressive journalists elsewhere.

In recent years, Indian news outlets, particularly the television networks, have taken an increasingly conservative turn. Supporters of Mr. Modi and his governing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, often brand critical voices as “anti-nationals,” as though equating patriotism with support for the current government.

The few journalists who question the government’s record on human rights, income inequality, joblessness or, most recently, the handling of the pandemic are often demonized in the right-wing ecosystem.

Early this year, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit that works to document attacks on journalists, said India had dropped two places on a global press freedom index, to 142nd out of 180 countries. It cited press freedom violations and constant pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line.

Mr. Goswami, 47, is no stranger to controversy. Early this year, the Mumbai police opened an investigation into his channel, Republic TV, accusing it of fomenting hatred against Muslims by targeting a mosque outside a railway station, linking it to a nearby protest by migrant workers.

Last month, police officials in Mumbai accused Republic TV and two smaller channels of rigging the ratings system by paying poor people the equivalent of a few dollars a month to tune in to the station and leave their televisions on. Mr. Goswami, a co-founder of the channel, has strongly denied the accusations of bribery, saying that he was being targeted because of coverage critical of the Mumbai police.

The latest case against him pertains to the suicide of an interior designer, Anvay Naik, and his mother in 2018. According to Mr. Naik’s family members, he named the journalist in his suicide note, accusing Mr. Goswami and two others of not paying money that was owed to him.

On Wednesday morning, officials raided Mr. Goswami’s house in an upscale section of south Mumbai, where, according to the police, he and his wife took almost an hour to open the door.

Videos of the raid show Mr. Goswami shouting at the officers, telling them not to manhandle him, as another officer repeatedly requests that Mr. Goswami’s wife, who also works at the TV station, put down her cellphone, which she says is recording the event “live.”

“You have physically assaulted me,” Mr. Goswami says, as an officer repeatedly requests that he cooperate. When he refuses to get up from a couch, another officer steps forward and says, “It is over. You are arrested.”

Akshata Naik, the widow of Anvay Naik, said that her husband had worked hard on a design project for Republic TV, but that not being paid for the work for over a year had left him penniless and forced him to commit suicide.

“We also want justice,” Ms. Naik said. “My husband died because of Arnab Goswami.”

Gurbir Singh, president of the Mumbai Press Club, said that when Mr. Modi’s party was in power in Maharashtra, Mr. Goswami had used his clout to arrange the closing of an investigation into him in connection with Mr. Naik’s suicide.

“There is a suspicion that he was mocking Maharashtra government and its police; that is why he was arrested,” Mr. Singh said. “But he should be given his due rights.”