Numerous journalists, with their representative organisations, civil society groups, lawyers, and opposition political parties, have expressed their outrage following the arrest of Prabir Purkayastha, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the news portal NewsClick, and its Human Resources head, Amit Chakraborty, on the evening of October 3.
The arrests are in connection with allegations that the organisation has received illegal funding. The Delhi police, which reports directly to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, have also sealed the Sainik Farms office of the organisation. The police questioned 46 alleged suspects, including nine women, and confiscated their phones, laptops, and devices.
The organisation was slapped with a case in August under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and other sections of the IPC, including Section 153A (promoting enmity between two groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy). This action came after The New York Times alleged in an article that the website received funds from US millionaire Neville Roy Singham and accused NewsClick of promoting Chinese government talking points. The Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Anurag Thakur, accused NewsClick of spreading an anti-India agenda.
Also Read | Are India’s liberal think tanks in trouble?
The police action is seen by many as an attack on one of the few independent media outlets in the country and has sparked concerns about dwindling press freedom in India. In February this year, similar raids were conducted by authorities at the BBC’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices weeks after it released a documentary critical of Narendra Modi. Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, ranked India 161st in its press freedom rankings this year, marking its lowest-ever position, citing a deterioration from “problematic” to “very bad.”
It is worth noting that NewsClick was already under scrutiny by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the central financial crimes probing agency. In August, the ED attached a flat linked to Purkayastha in New Delhi’s Saket as part of its money laundering probe. The central probing agency had also raided Purkayastha’s premises in September 2021.
According to its website, NewsClick is an independent media organisation committed to covering news from India and around the world, with a focus on progressive movements. NewsClickfrequently carries articles that are critical of the BJP-led government.
Simultaneously, the police also searched the Mumbai home of social activist Teesta Setalvad, who is the director of the think tank Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research (which has contributed articles to NewsClick), and the official residence of CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury in New Delhi while looking for the son of a party member who works at NewsClick. The people subjected to the raids all had direct or indirect ties to NewsClick, and included contributors, columnists, and editorial staff. But the raids also targeted historian Sohail Hashmi, science writer D. Raghunandan, and cartoonist Irfan Khan.
Several journalists who were taken to the Lodhi Road special cell office for questioning reported that they were asked about their coverage of the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest of 2019-20 and of the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21. Many of those questioned said the police did not provide a hash value for their confiscated personal electronic devices, raising concerns of potential tampering of the devices or planting of incriminatory material.
An attack on press freedom
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for the immediate release of Purkayastha. Similarly, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia has urged authorities to respect the fundamental rights of journalists and uphold the principles of press freedom and freedom of expression as per the Constitution of India.
The Press Club of India and the Editors Guild of India have expressed solidarity with the journalists in question and have urged the government to provide details. Several groups of journalists have planned a protest march in New Delhi on Wednesday evening.
A statement from the Indian Women’s Press Corps argued that the repeated targeting of certain media outlets for their criticism of government policies that are not people-friendly reflects poorly on a government that represents the world’s largest democracy.
The National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (Delhi Unit) condemned the police raids at the journalists’ houses, emphasising the far-reaching impact it will have on press freedom.
The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) demanded that stringent anti-terror laws such as the UAPA not be used indiscriminately to target journalists.
The All India Lawyers Union criticised the police action, describing it as an assault on media and the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, the president of AILU, said the action against NewsClickwas “orchestrated, illegal, and unconstitutional”.
Expressing deep concern, DIGIPUB News India Foundation said the action against journalists represents the government’s “arbitrary and intimidatory behaviour” taken to a new extreme.
In a joint statement, the INDIA bloc, a coalition of 28 opposition political parties, alleged that the Narendra Modi government has persecuted the media over the past nine years by using investigative agencies against them. The coalition said, “The coercive actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are directed against only those media organisations and journalists that speak truth to power.”