NewsClick raids: Reminiscent of the emergency

The raids on the NewsClick web portal by the Delhi Police following a dog whistle from the US state-controlled media reminded India of the emergency.

NewsClick raids: Reminiscent of the emergency

Prabir Purkayastha, the editor-in-chief of NewsClick portal was arrested on Tuesday, October 3rd, by the Delhi Police.

The Union government’s Delhi Police carried out a series of raids against the New Delhi-based online news portal NewsClick on Tuesday, October 3rd, targeting its editor, journalists, employees and even freelance contributors. The office of NewsClick has been sealed, an optic reminiscent of the emergency period, alleged critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The Delhi Police raided over 30 places, including the South Delhi-based office of NewsClick and the residence of its editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha. A total of 46 people were questioned by the Delhi Police, after which Purkayastha and the human resource head of NewsClick, Amit Chakravarty, were arrested.

Purkayastha, a septuagenarian, is reportedly booked under the stringent anti-terror law – Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Chakravarty is reportedly disabled and needs a crutch for movement. The others were allowed to leave but their laptops, mobiles, hard disks and other digital devices have been reportedly seized by the investigators. In most of the cases, the journalists haven’t been provided with any seizure list or hash data of the content present in the digital devices, which many allege is a contravention of the legal procedures.

The Delhi Police claimed that NewsClick has allegedly received money from abroad to carry out “Chinese propaganda”. The Delhi Police filed a case against NewsClick and its editor-in-chief under UAPA along with 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, on August 17th.

“A total of 37 male suspects have been questioned at premises, 9 female suspects have been questioned at their respective places of stay and digital devices, documents etc. have been seized/collected for examination (sic)”, the Delhi Police said in a statement.

The journalists who were questioned include Abhisar Sharma, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Bhasha Singh, Sumedha Pal, etc. Apart from the journalists, those working as subeditors, cartoonists, satirists, and a former editor were also questioned. This has raised eyebrows, as generally for economic offences those associated with a company’s top management or finances are questioned by relevant authorities.

The raids on NewsClick portal’s journalists and the arrest of Purkayastha and Chakravarty took place after The New York Times (NYT) published a controversial report on August 5th, alleging that the Indian portal critical of Modi has ties with American entrepreneur Neville Roy Singham, whom the newspaper accused of being complicit in spreading “Chinese propaganda”.

Purkayastha denied any involvement between NewsClick and the Chinese government after the controversial NYT report was published. The report, based on unsubstantial claims, epitomised the US newspaper’s quintessential style in which it propagates the CIA’s propaganda. The NYT was earlier accused of spreading disinformation during the 2003 Iraq War to build a favourable mass opinion. It also spread disinformation during the US’s involvement in the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts.

The Economic Offence Wing (EOW) of the Delhi Police had filed a case against NewsClick in early 2021, following its coverage of the farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders against three controversial farm laws—which were scrapped in November 2021—enacted by the Modi government. The EOW alleged that NewsClick had received foreign funds illegally, in contravention of the ceiling on foreign direct investment (FDI) in Indian media houses.

According to the EOW’s complaint, NewsClick received Rs 380m from sources linked with China. It alleged that the portal received Rs 290m as fees for export services, while it received an FDI worth Rs 95.9m from Worldwide Media Holdings LLC based in the US. An Indian news and current affairs entity can receive FDI up to 26%, which the EOW claimed was violated.

Following the EOW’s complaint, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), India’s anti-money laundering investigative agency, raided the office of NewsClick and Purkayastha in February 2021, ringing an eerie alarm. After severe protests from the journalist fraternity, the Delhi High Court granted interim protection to Purkayastha from the ED.

It’s alleged that the portal’s coverage of the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Delhi in 2020 and its coverage of the farmers’ protest irked the government. The Modi government has been accused of using brute force to gag critical voices, including those in the press if the need arises.

Soon after the controversial report of the NYT was published, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started a cacophony, demanding action against NewsClick. Although the BJP has been condemning the NYT’s reports critical of the Modi government for a long time, it didn’t mind using one against its adversaries, especially a media house connected with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], to start a witch-hunt against the left, a constituent of the newly formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

The NYT report, which claimed itself to be an investigation, provided no credible sources or evidence to prove that Singham had received money from China or NewsClick had been funded by Chinese money. Yet, it used wild allegations with sheer Sinophobia, which helped the Indian government and its agencies to run a witch-hunt with impunity, using sheer xenophobia.

This new round of crackdown on NewsClick, following similar intimidating actions against Newslaundry, The Wire, Kashmir Walla, Bharat Samachar, etc, has created a ruckus not only in the media circle, especially among the handful of those critical of the Modi government, but also in India’s political circle.

The Editors’ Guild of India, several media bodies and journalists’ associations have condemned the raids on NewsClick and called them draconian. The INDIA bloc members have also condemned the raids and criticised the BJP’s persecutive strategy against the media houses that refuse to toe its line.

Press freedom has been shrinking in India under Modi’s rule, the Opposition has been alleging. Several independent media houses and journalists have come under fire in recent years for their critical reporting. At the same time, critics allege that the media houses spreading communal hatred are allowed to operate with impunity by the government.

Now, the raids on NewsClick over allegations of “Chinese propaganda” have rung a vexing alarm because the critics of the government claim that the dispensation may use a similar xenophobic narrative to target other media entities as well. Apart from the CPI(M), the BJP has also blamed the Indian National Congress for the NewsClick issue, which indicates that a major crackdown may be on its way.

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