The raids conducted by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell on Tuesday at the homes of journalists and contributing authors associated with Delhi-based news portal NewsClick has brought back the focus on the Indian government’s attempts to suppress press freedom through the means of probe agencies. Raids were conducted at over 30 locations, including at the residences of NewsClick’s editor Prabir Purkayastha, senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Abhisar Sharma, Urmilesh, Aunindyo Chakraborty, Bhasha Singh, satirist Sanjay Rajaura, and historian and activist Sohail Hashmi. A similar action was initiated in Mumbai against activist Teesta Setalvad.
The action pertains to a case filed against NewsClick under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in August, days after an explosive New York Times report alleged that NewsClick received funding from American businessman Neville Roy Singham to promote pro-Chinese government coverage. NewsClick has been under the spotlight since 2021 when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) first launched an investigation into the organisation over the China links. Raids have been conducted in the past as well and electronics like phone and computers have been seized from the scribes. So far, there has been no concrete evidence in the case.
When a reporter asked Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur about the raids today, he said he did not "need to justify". Probe agencies are free to carry out probe "if anyone has committed anything wrong", he said. This drew flak as opposition leaders and critics pointed out the lack of clarity in the minister’s remarks. Notably, at least two people hve been detained. The Press Club of India issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the multiple raids and that they were monitoring the developments.
However, this is not a standalone instance of raids at media offices after critical coverage or dissent of the government. In the past, several Indian media offices including BBC, The Quint, Dainik Bhaskar have been ‘searched’. Outlook looks at a few of them:
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
In February this year, the Income Tax Department had arrived at the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) offices in Delhi and Mumbai for a ‘survey’ to investigate issues related to international taxation and transfer pricing of BBC subsidiary companies. The I-T department had alleged that the broadcaster was served with notices in the past, but was "defiant and non-compliant" and had significantly diverted its profits.
There were also suspicions of cloning of computer peripherals and a few mobile phones which raised questions over the government’s attempt to curb press freedom.
The 'survey' at the BBC offices in India was initiated weeks after the UK-headquartered public broadcaster aired a controversial two-part documentary in the UK, ‘India: The Modi Question’, referencing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots.
In July 2022, the I-T department raided the offices of one of the country's leading newspaper groups Dainik Bhaskar following its in-depth reporting on the governemnt’s handling of Covid-19 pandemic. Dainik Bhaskar’s coverage revealed the gross mismanagement by government authorities during the pandemic and the immense loss of human lives.
The Editors Guild of India (EGI), subsequently claimed that Dainik Bhaskar's national editor Om Gaur had stated that their advertisements from government departments have been cut down after recent critical coverage of state authorities. "He had also written an Op-Ed in the New York Times, headlined 'The Ganges is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie'," the EGI noted.
Similar raids were also conducted at the office of Lucknow-based Bharat Samachar after its coverage of pandemic handling by the Uttar Pradesh government. The EGI had reported that Bharat Samachar was one of the few channels in Uttar Pradesh that has been asking difficult questions to the state government with respect to the pandemic's management.
"Notwithstanding the merits of the case, the timing of these raids is concerning given the recent critical coverage by both the organisations," the EGI said.
In 2021, the Enforcement Directorate carried out rais at NewsClick offices and at the residence of journalists and officials working for the media house in a similar fashion as the latest one by Delhi Police.
The ED officials had said they were carrying out their “routine check” and that NewsClick was involved in a money laundering case for taking foreign funding from some dubious companies abroad.
NewsClick had issued a statement saying: "It has become a routine practice with the present government to deploy government-controlled agencies to deal with all those who disagree with and criticise the government.” The organisation and its founders remain under scrutiny to date.
In October 2018, the I-T department carried out a nearly-22 hour-long search at the office Noida-based independent media house, The Quint. I-T officials were also present at the residences of the founders -- Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kumar.
According to the I-T officer leading the team, they were conducting a “search” on one floor of the office, and a “survey” on the other.
The Quint had reported to EGI stating, “We are a fully tax compliant entity, and will provide all access to all appropriate financial documents."
Back in 2017, during the initial years of the BJP, the CBI had conducted a raid at NDTV offices, and at the residence of its founder Prannoy Roy. The agency alleged that its founders duped ICICI Bank of Rs 48 crores.
NDTV had denied any wrongdoing and said the loan had been repaid more than seven years ago. It said the searches were conducted without a preliminary inquiry and constituted a witch-hunt against independent media.
“This is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press as sources confirm that under pressure, the CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV called Sanjay Dutt, who has been making false allegations and filing cases in courts of law with these false allegations,” NDTV said in a release.
In October 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted raids across 10 locations in Jammu and Kashmir, including the offices of the Union Territory's leading English daily Greater Kashmir.
Expressing concern over the “mounting cost” of being a journalist in Kashmir, the Kashmir Editors’ Guild (KEG) had reacted to the raids and said, "Kashmir media continues to get targeted, demonised, vilified, and raided by both the state and non-state actors for a long time now.”