Crackdown on NewsClick signals erosion of democratic values

Is the government exploiting anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent?

Published : Oct 17, 2023 22:11 IST - 13 MINS READ

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha being brought to the Patiala House court by Delhi Police’s Special Cell on October 10.  

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha being brought to the Patiala House court by Delhi Police’s Special Cell on October 10.   | Photo Credit: PTI

On October 3, at around 6:30 am, there was a knock at the door of a 27-year-old reporter’s home in north Delhi. At least three policemen, including an assistant sub inspector (ASI) and a constable of the Central Industrial Security Force, barged in, asking if he worked with NewsClick, a bilingual digital news media platform whose office was sealed by the police later that day. When he confirmed it, the reporter told Frontline that the ASI then said: “Aren’t you ashamed of working for China?””

The reporter, who joined NewsClick barely two years ago, was one among 40-plus journalists—staff, former employees, and freelance contributors—associated with NewsClick who were questioned and whose electronic devices, diaries, and books were confiscated in a massive crackdown across 30 locations in the NCR that morning. After the first round of questioning at their homes, the majority were taken to the Delhi Police’s Special Cell at Lodhi Road, many to be released as late as 8 pm that night. On the same day, NewsClick’s founder and editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and its Human Resources (HR) head, Amit Chakravarty, were arrested in an alleged terror case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The arrests were made on the basis of an FIR filed by the Delhi Police on August 17 that does not mention any act of terrorism. 

The FIR alleges that PPK NewsClick Studio Pvt Ltd, which owns NewsClick, was paid to promote, project, and defend programmes of the Chinese government. The FIR appears to draw heavily from a report in The New York Times dated August 5, which claimed that a global network of news organisations, including NewsClick, received funds from the American tech billionaire Neville Roy Singham to publish Chinese propaganda. It described Singham as “a socialist benefactor of far-left causes”. 

The Delhi Police FIR claimed that illegally routed funds were distributed among several journalists for information warfare against the government. The accused persons mentioned in the FIR include Vijay Prashad, who is also editor of LeftWord Books and executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research; Gautam Navlakha, who has been under house arrest in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case since April 14, 2020; and alleged associates of Teesta Setalvad, who is an accused in a case related to the 2002 Gujarat riots, including Teesta’s husband Javed Anand, her daughter Tamara, and son, Jibran; and journalists Urmilesh, Aratrika Halder, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Trina Shankar, and Abhisar Sharma.

NewsClick called the allegations “untenable and bogus”. The organisation said these charges had been made earlier by three government agencies: the Enforcement Directorate, the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing, and the Income Tax Department. “None of these investigations led to any charge sheets or complaints over the last three years,” its statement read. It added that the latest FIR had been registered to “carry out illegal arrests under the draconian UAPA”.

Political and media watchers link the NewsClick crackdown to a larger political agenda of the ruling BJP, which started with the JNU sedition cases followed by arrests in the Bhima Koregaon case and a crackdown on NGOs, civil society, and critical media at large. 

Also Read | Assault on NewsClick marks the lowest point for media freedom in India since Emergency

In the nine years of the Narendra Modi regime, a sizeable section of the mainstream media is perceived to have become a propaganda arm of the government. This coincides with the emergence of pro-Hindutva media outlets that endorse and amplify the ruling party’s agenda and regularly attack media houses, journalists, academics, and public intellectuals. At least 14 opposition parties moved the Supreme Court earlier this year complaining that 95 per cent of political leaders probed by the ED and the CBI belong to the opposition camp.

At the heart of the clampdown lies the government’s exploitation of the amended UAPA, ineffective or inadequate laws protecting citizens’ right to privacy, and the use of recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global watchdog against terrorism financing and money laundering, to neutralise ideological adversaries.

What NYT said

The report in The New York Times has just one paragraph dedicated to NewsClick. “In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Mr. Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points,” the report stated. It referred to a NewsClick video to substantiate its claim. Published on October 2, 2019, the video caption read: “On the 70th anniversary of the Chinese revolution of 1949, Peoples Dispatch takes a look at the history of the revolution and how it transformed China from a feudal country to a global power with a socialist characteristics. Even today, China’s revolutionary history continues to inspire the working classes and people’s struggles across the world against capitalist exploitation and imperialist aggression.” The video had received less than 10,000 views as on October 10.

“Only those who don’t know China’s history would find this video objectionable,” said a senior journalist who works as a consultant with NewsClick. “The allegations won’t stand judicial scrutiny, but it is the process under UAPA that becomes punishment,” he said.

NewsClick’s HR head Amit Chakravarty being brought to court on October 10.  

NewsClick’s HR head Amit Chakravarty being brought to court on October 10.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Incidentally, the website has also published a piece on the Russian Revolution by Prashad. In December 2018, Prashad wrote a piece for NewsClick on China’s 40 years of reforms, describing how Deng Xiaoping moved China from a Maoist development paradigm to one that included socialist institutions and the market economy.

Independent media watchers said the allegations about NewsClick peddling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda were false. The news portal does not show any adherence to international Communist alliances despite its leftist leaning, they pointed out.

Interestingly, one of the few articles on China published by NewsClick in the past two years is a report describing the slow progress on key infrastructure projects, and the restricted access and communication blackout in forward areas of Eastern Ladakh after the Galwan crisis.

Another curated report raises concerns that a document confirming that China had “transgressed” into Indian territory reportedly went missing from the website of the Ministry of Defence. Another report talks of a statement sent by over 140 military veterans to the government calling for “non-military political solutions for both external and internal security in the larger national interest”.

In its video section, the portal has an interview of Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst and retired colonel, by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a consultant with NewsClick (see interview.). Shukla raises questions over Prime Minister Modi’s assertion in June 2020 that “no one entered Indian territory, no Indian posts were taken over”.

On India-China relations, there is an interview with Atul Bharadwaj, a former naval officer and senior fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, hosted by Purkayastha, which concludes by saying: “The Foreign Ministers cannot solve any of India-China outstanding issues, unless India agrees to have a different view of its larger economic relations with China. Continuing the Great Game that the British played in South Asia is an outmoded view of international relations and does not match the current global realities.”

“I was looking for programmes where the show took the CCP position on border talks in India, Ladakh, Galwan, etc., but found nothing,” tweeted Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese, quipping: “Even if Chinese money did come in, it was probably CCP’s worst return on investment.”

Critical of crony capitalism

NewsClick’s reportage and commentaries are invariably critical of crony capitalism, and it is known to punch above its weight on important issues of public interest that no longer get space in mainstream media.

The FIR accuses NewsClick of inciting and funding the farmers’ agitation in order to create law and order problems and losses to the economy. It alleges that NewsClick promoted a false narrative against the government’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talking to Frontline, many of the targeted journalists said the police came with a “loaded mind”. The reporter cited at the beginning of this piece said the ASI asked if he had covered the farmers’ protests and the anti-CAA protests. When he said yes, the ASI retorted: “These laws were made in the national interest. But you people spread disinformation to mislead the people.” The ASI also asked the reporter why he had Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in CentralAsia among his books. Guha Thakurta was asked why he did not cover the G20 summit.

The FIR also names Urmilesh, a former executive editor of Rajya Sabha TV and a freelance consultant with NewsClick. “The FIR insinuates that the funds in question were distributed among us for anti-national activities,” he said. The NewsClick office has been locked, but the portal continues to react to major national and international news. On October 9, it published a report, “10 Reasons Why India’s Stance on Gaza is Unsustainable”, by former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar. Another opinion piece, “Criminalising the Public Sphere” by Ajay Gudavarthy, discussed the attacks on the media and other democratic institutions.

The website also carried a news story on villages in Jogulamba Gadwal district of Telangana that are still heavily dependent on rainfall for cultivation and livestock despite the Thummilla Lift Irrigation Project. On October 7, Bhasha Singh, among the journalists questioned during the raids, presented an analysis of the nursing colleges scam in election-bound Madhya Pradesh.

  • On October 3, over 40 journalists associated with the NewsClick digital news media platform were questioned and their electronic devices, diaries, and books were confiscated in north Delhi.
  • NewsClick’s founder and editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and its HR head, Amit Chakravarty, were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) based on an FIR that did not mention any act of terrorism.
  • The crackdown is seen as part of a larger political agenda by the BJP, targeting NGOs, civil society, and critical media, utilising amended UAPA, ineffective privacy laws, and Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations to suppress dissent.

Targeted digital surveillance?

Abhisar Sharma, noted journalist and consultant with NewsClick, said on his YouTube channel that he was “neither shown any warrant nor given any reason when his devices were confiscated”. Urmilesh said: “It never happens in a democratic country. They shouldn’t have confiscated my books, laptop, and mobile phones.”

In the absence of a robust data protection law, the confiscation of devices has again raised concerns about targeted digital surveillance. A coalition of 18 media organisations, including Press Club of India, DIGIPUB News, Indian Women Press Corps, and Foundation for Media Professionals, wrote to Chief Justice Of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud demanding guidelines for interrogation of journalists and seizure of their electronic devices.

Chapter VII of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) deals with search and seizure procedures. In cases where an immediate search is required, the police have to provide reasons. But Sections 165 and 102 of the CrPC allow exceptions for search and seizure of property on the basis of mere suspicion.

Many of the detained journalists complained that the police did not provide a hash value for their confiscated devices. Under the Information Technology Act, 2000, the police are duty-bound to record the hash value of a seized device and provide a copy of the seizure memo, to be presented in court along with the charge sheet.

Petitions in Supreme Court

There are two petitions pending before the Supreme Court in cases relating to this subject. The Centre filed an affidavit in November 2022 in response to a PIL petition filed by five academics, stating that search and seizure of digital devices during probes “further legitimate state interest” and cannot be said to violate privacy rights. The Centre said the accused could approach the trial court to either seek the return of the device or a cloned image of the confiscated device’s hard drive.

Another petition filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals, pending before the Supreme Court, accuses police of excesses during search or seizure of digital devices and dubious practices. In August 2020, the senior journalist Prashant Tandon was questioned by the Delhi Police in connection with the Delhi riots. The police seized his mobile phone and are yet to return it to him.

Tandon said: “Once someone’s mobile phone is confiscated, who knows what the police will put in it. We have seen in the Bhima Koregaon case how international media reported that evidence was planted in the computers of the accused.”

“The authorities have repeatedly weaponised UAPA to intimidate and harass journalists, human rights defenders, and activists. Its vague definitions of ‘terrorist acts’ are weaponised to violate free trial rights.”Aakar PatelAuthor and Chairman of Amnesty International India

A report by tech magazine Wired quoted US cybersecurity researchers that the Pune police hacked devices owned by activists Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, and Hany Babu and planted fake evidence in them. Though Wilson filed a petition in February 2021 seeking a probe, it is yet to be considered by the court.

“The basic problem is that every citizen is being considered a potential terrorist,” said Tandon. In a recent article, Purkayastha slammed the BJP government for weaponising laws such as the UAPA and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act against critics and opponents. Aakar Patel, author and chairman of Amnesty International India, against whom the UAPA was invoked, told Frontline: “The authorities have repeatedly weaponised UAPA to intimidate and harass journalists, human rights defenders, and activists. Its vague definitions of ‘terrorist acts’ are weaponised to violate free trial rights.”

According to a Free Speech Collective report, as many as 16 journalists have been charged under the UAPA since 2010 and at least seven are in jail at present. The joint letter to CJI Chandrachud said that invocation of the UAPA against NewsClick was “chilling”. It cited the example of Siddique Kappan, who was jailed for over two years, and the death of Father Stan Swamy in police custody.

Also Read | Why is the Delhi High Court least persuasive on denying written arrest grounds to NewsClick accused?

One of the biggest criticisms of the amended UAPA is that it allows the state to designate intellectual adversaries as terrorists and detain them without legal procedures. “The difference between journalists and terrorists has collapsed,” said the author Arundhati Roy.

Other public intellectuals said the “China bogey” was being used to control independent media. The Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said: “Even if someone has taken funds from a Chinese national for propaganda, it does not make a case for terror activity under UAPA. Secondly, the raids and seizures without any court order is illegal and against the right to privacy.” Bhushan was speaking at a protest meet on October 4 in New Delhi.

Regarding the FIR against providing legal aid to Chinese telecom companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo in tax evasion cases, Bhushan pointed out that the companies are allowed to operate in India, and Xiaomi donated Rs.10 crore to the PM CARES fund in 2020. “Vivo sponsored IPL for three years till 2021 and paid Rs.980 crore,” he said.

With the Lok Sabha election around the corner, many observers believe the action against NewsClick is a brazen attempt to control the political narrative. As A.J. Prabal, an independent journalist, pointed out: “Many digital media platforms remain untamed as they are not dependent on government revenue and advertisements.”

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