The vicious and sweeping Delhi Police raids on the offices of NewsClick and the residences of virtually anyone associated with it; the indiscriminate seizure of the electronic devices of journalists and other employees without “any adherence to due process such as the provision of seizure memos, hash values of the seized data, or even copies of the data”1; the sealing of the news portal’s main office; the arrest of its founder-editor, Prabhir Purkayastha, and its administrative officer, Amit Chakravarty, on terrorism-related charges; and, as though this were not enough, the searches conducted at the premises of NewsClick and the home of its founder-editor after a fresh criminal case was filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the fifth probe agency directed from above to set about this medium-sized digital news organisation—this marks the lowest point for media freedom in India since the Emergency of 1975-1977. And there is every indication that the post-2014 downslide, which has seen India sink to the rank of 161 among 180 countries and territories in the World Press Freedom Index 2023 published by Reporters Sans Frontières, will continue—unless there is organised and effective resistance and smart, sustained collective action at various levels, professional, legal, and political.
Against this background, the First Information Report (FIR) registered by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police against Purkayastha and others is an instructive, although far from edifying, document. The FIR takes you into the raw and muddled police mind and lets you imagine what a dystopian police state—a vicious, crude, and unintelligent police state whose motto is ‘Sentence first, verdict afterwards’ — would look like, if allowed free rein by the courts.
Even a cursory look at the criminal case registered in the FIR (which made its way into the hands of resourceful journalists despite the police diktat that “Due to sensitive nature the FIR may not be uploaded”) reveals that it is a motivated and fake case and that the allegations made against NewsClick are “untenable and bogus.”2 An editorial published in The Hindu elucidates this untenability3.
But the assault on NewsClick is not essentially a story about the police running riot. It is a political story. The story of the BJP and the Hindutva authoritarian regime at war with a medium-sized progressive and left-oriented digital news network and the independent, critical, and challenging journalism it represents. To understand the nature of this conflict, let us look at some basic facts.
“The spark The New York Times story provided was all that was needed to target NewsClick again, this time through a state-engineered McCarthyite campaign of disinformation, scaremongering, and vilification.”N. RamFormer Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu
Founded in 2009, newsclick.in, which is owned by a small private company, PPK Newsclick Studio Pvt Ltd, and works on a modest budget, is managed in its day-to-day operations by an editorial collective. Its founder and editor-in-chief, Prabhir Purkayastha, is an engineer, science activist in the power, telecom, and software sectors, and an influential intellectual of the Indian Left. The news network focusses on reporting, analysing, and commenting on people’s movements and struggles. It regularly presents critical and progressive voices on a range of issues. Unsurprisingly, NewsClick has been opposed to the Modi government’s authoritarian “Hindutva” or Hindu-supremacist political agenda and is critical of the policies that derive from it.
The portal’s reports, analyses, and daily updates are free, and the business model is based on subscriptions, sales of journalistic content to select customers abroad, and some investments to support its operations and extend its footprint. What is clear is that this digital media venture, although not a non-profit, is not motivated by profit.
NewsClick’s big journalistic moment came during the farmers’ mass protest of 2020-21 against three new agricultural laws. Its ground-zero-up, comprehensive, and sympathetic coverage of the movement and the issues at stake in the form of news articles and videos in Hindi as well as in English was widely followed. This coverage surpassed the efforts of the big media players, newspapers as well as television channels, and is perceived to have contributed in some measure to the success of the movement and the repeal of the unpopular laws.
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Enter Neville Roy Singham, a U.S. citizen, a left-oriented intellectual and activist, and a gifted and highly successful entrepreneur, into the story. He was the founder and predominant owner of ThoughtWorks, Inc, a world-class IT consultancy with a global footprint, which, interestingly, included worksites, offices, and employees in India. In 2017, ThoughtWorks was sold to a British private equity fund, Apax Partners, for a reported sum of $785 million. To give away most of the proceeds Singham received from the sale, he and his team created a private foundation in the U.S. called the People’s Support Foundation Limited (PSF). It is important to note here that according to an authoritative statement issued by Jason Pfetcher, a lawyer and manager, on behalf of the foundation, “all funds donated to PSF came from the sale of ThoughtWorks” and “PSF has never received funds from a foreign government”.4 The foundation owns and manages Worldwide Media Holdings LLC (WMH), “a for-profit investment vehicle which has made various investments in progressive media projects around the world that provide people-centred news coverage.”5
Towards the end of 2017, WMH identified NewsClick as “an organization that was consistent with WMH’s purposes and commenced due diligence on a potential investment in NewsClick.”6 Its founder-editor Purkayastha, who had worked at ThoughtWorks for several years, was well regarded by the potential investor and the investment materialised in March 2018.
From 2021, NewsClick has been targeted by a relentless fusillade of politically set up raids, searches, and seizures by various agencies of the Centre, to be specific, the Enforcement Directorate, the economic offences wing of the Delhi Police, and the Income Tax Department. With no evidence of “money laundering” or tax evasion or any other form of wrongdoing found in the large trove of devices, documents, and emails seized, these investigations seemed to have reached a dead end.
Now enter the New York Times with an “exclusive” investigative story that was a curious mixture of fact-discovery, ideologically charged innuendo, and tall conclusions drawn from innocuous happenings and mostly thin data. Titled “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul,”7 the story claimed to have uncovered “a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda” at the centre of which is “a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes” — as though this were an indictable offence. The article made two casual references to NewsClick – that “the authorities in India” had raided it “during a crackdown on the press, accusing it of having ties to the Chinese government but offering no proof”; and that “Mr Singham’s network” had “financed” the news site, which had then “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points.”
Significantly, the New York Times article did not allege that NewsClick had violated any law. Had the investigative journalists probed deeper or contacted the editors or management of the digital news network, they would have learned that the “financing” was in the form of investment by WMH, the particulars of which had been declared to the authorities in compliance with the law; that there was no question of “money laundering” as alleged by India’s Enforcement Directorate, which was politically set up to conduct the raids in February 2021 and had come up with nothing; that the High Court of Delhi, finding a prima facie case in favour of NewsClick, had granted interim protection from arrest to various officials of the company; and that a lower court had dismissed a complaint made by income tax authorities against the media organisation on a related matter. As for the news site sprinkling its coverage with “Chinese government talking points,” the only exhibit the New York Times journalists were able to come up with was a video posted at the site on October 2, 2019, to commemorate “70 years of the Chinese revolution” and the transformations that had been wrought over the period.
That the New York Times story is ideologically charged journalism, editorialising under the guise of reporting with a campaign, even a propaganda, edge to it, is fair criticism. Jason Pfetcher, the lawyer and WMH manager, has an even more serious complaint relating to journalism ethics. Before the article appeared, he had responded to the reporters’ questions on behalf of PSF as follows: “PSF has never received any funding, nor taken direction from any foreign individual, organisation, political party, or government (or from any of their members or representatives.” Shockingly, the New York Times “failed to include this categorical denial of foreign funding, and instead left readers to believe that the source of PSF’s funding (or Roy’s for that matter) might have come from China, rather than from the sale of ThoughtWorks.”8
The spark the New York Times story provided was all that was needed to target NewsClick again, this time through a state-engineered McCarthyite campaign of disinformation, scaremongering, and vilification. The influencers and the “bhakts”, as the fanaticised followers of the Hindutva cause are known, went wild on social media platforms, making fantastic allegations relating to the supposed danger to India’s national security that had been exposed by the U.S. newspaper and baying for the blood of NewsClick and the people behind it. A section of the mainstream media, especially a couple of television channels that are notorious for acting as propagandists for the government, joined this campaign, putting out false and salacious information obligingly “leaked” by the investigating agencies.
This set the stage for a fresh round of criminal prosecution on terrorism-related charges.
There have been widespread protests across the country by journalists, lawyers, political and social activists, and members of the public against what happened on October 3 and thereafter. Newspapers have published editorials and articles condemning or criticising the BJP government’s attack on NewsClick. Press clubs, organisations of working journalists, and professional bodies, notably the Editors Guild of India, Digipub, and the Network of Women in Media India, as well as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, have registered their condemnation. The collective actions in solidarity with NewsClick and its journalists have been heartening. Equally important, the matter has been taken to court, with wholehearted support from some of India’s top lawyers.
But this is not enough. The campaign to defend media independence and freedom cannot succeed if it is episodic. Repression by the state can be resisted and faced down in various ways. The real challenge today is to sustain and develop the campaign in a toxic information ecosystem where disinformation and the politics of hate run riot in social media and some sections of the professional media as well.
Since May 2014, 19 Indian journalists have been murdered in connection with their work. But the killers have not been brought to justice, so much so that India remains a permanent member of the club of shame known as the Global Impunity Index compiled year after year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to a recently published article in The Wire9, 16 journalists have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with seven of them behind bars, eight out on bail, and one not arrested. Each one of these cases must be taken up seriously, as a matter of priority. The momentum generated by the widespread protests against the assault on NewsClick must be used to build a democratic movement that is deeply committed to ensuring that not just the voices of independent and critical journalists but also their lives, safety, and fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Constitution are protected and that the cause of even one in peril is the cause of all.
N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and Frontline, is currently a Director in The Hindu Group Publishing Private Limited. He is the recipient of several journalism awards, of the Padma Bhushan (for journalism), 1990, and the Sri Lanka Ratna, 2005.