As SC Orders NewsClick Founder Prabir Purkayastha’s Release, A Reminder For India’s Press Freedom

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and the organisation's human resources (HR) head Amit Chakraborty were arrested on October 3 last year under UAPA.

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Delhi Police Special cell detained Founder and Editor-in-Chief of NewsClick Prabir Purkayastha from his office on October 3, 2023 in New Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

More than seven months after one of the most exhaustive crackdowns on an Indian newsroom, the Supreme Court declared today that the arrest of NewsClick founding editor Prabir Purkayastha was “invalid in the eyes of law”. The apex court has ordered his immediate release in what is being seen as a small victory amid the seemingly diminishing press freedom in India.

Purkayastha and the NewsClick’s human resources (HR) head Amit Chakraborty were arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell in October last year under the draconian anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—UAPA following a report in The New York Times about the organisation receiving money from US billionaire Neville Roy Singham, who is accused of spreading Chinese propaganda in India and elsewhere. Sweeping raids were conducted on the NewsClick’s office with nearly all employees, journalists and others, along with several former employees questioned for hours. At least 46 alleged suspects, including nine women, had their phones, laptops and other devices confiscated by the police, which also sealed the portal’s Sainik Farms office.

The police had accused the outlet’s founder of conspiracy in the illegal funding case to "disrupt the sovereignty of India". It had also alleged that Purkayastha conspired with a group -- People's Alliance for Democracy and Secularism (PADS) -- to sabotage the electoral process during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Ordering Purkayastha’s release today, a bench of Justices B R Gavai and Sandeep Mehta observed that a copy of the remand application in the "purported exercise of communication" of grounds of arrest in writing was not provided to Purkayastha or his counsel before the passing of the remand order. 

"There is no hesitation in the mind of the Court to reach to a conclusion that a copy of the remand application, in the purported exercise of the communication of the grounds of arrest in writing, was not provided to the accused-appellant or his counsel before the passing of the remand order dated 4th October, 2023, which vitiates the arrest and the subsequent remand of the appellant. As a result, the appellant is entitled to a direction for release from custody by applying the ration of the judgment rendered by this court in Pankaj Bansal," it pronounced and ordered his release on furnishing bail bond to the satisfaction of the trial court.

The bench, however, made it clear that none of the observations made by it shall be treated as a comment on the merits of the case.

Where Does India Stand On Press Freedom?

Many activists and journalists had termed the crackdown on NewsClick – which was known for its investigative ground reports – and Purkayatha’s arrest as one of the lowest points in press freedom in recent times in India. The NewsClick raids had also come just seven months after similar searches were conducted at the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices following its controversial 'India: The Modi Question' documentary.

Welcoming the top court’s order, non-profit organisation DIGIPUB News India Foundation, in a statement, said, “We are glad and grateful that Supreme Court has finally intervened. We urge the government to exercise caution and restraint in its deliberate and regressive war against media houses it doesn’t agree with.”

India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index slipped to 159 out of 180 countries, according to the 2024 report released by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Over the past 10 years, 19 Indian journalists have been murdered in connection with their reportage, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), with most of the killers not brought to justice. Ahead of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, many journalists continued to face increasing pressure, in addition to detentions, police raids and blockage of news websites. Like Purkayastha, at least 16 journalists have been charged under UAPA, with seven behind bars, according to Free Speech Collective. Journalists have also been framed under other penal provisions like sedition, Public Safety Act, National Security Act etc.

As veteran journalist N Ram wrote for the Frontline, “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.”