Prominent journalist bodies sought the intervention of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud in light of the Delhi Police Special Cell raids and seizure of devices against journalists and authors associated with Delhi-based media outlet NewsClick. The latest searches against NewsClick, known for its critical reportage, have brought the question of press freedom in India to the fore.
In a letter addressed to the CJI, organisations including the Digipub News India Foundation, Indian Women's Press Corps, and the Press Club of India, among others have raised an alarm regarding journalists in India finding themselves "working under the threat of reprisal".
The letter, they said, is “an appeal from one institution that is essential for the exercise of freedom and democracy in India, to one that is Supreme and is sworn to protect the Constitution that enshrines those freedoms.”
"It is imperative that the Judiciary confronts power with a fundamental truth - that there is a Constitution to which we are all answerable," it read.
The letter pointed at journalists arrested under draconian laws like UAPA and kept in jail for years. It cited the instance of raids conducted on October 3 on the homes of 46 staffers of news portal NewsClick including journalists, editors, writers, and professionals. Notably, NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and the outlet’s HR head were arrested and sent to a 7-day police remand.
"Subjecting journalists to a concentrated criminal process because the government disapproves of their coverage of national and international affairs is an attempt to chill the press by threat of reprisal-the very ingredient you identified as a threat to freedom," the letter read.
"We do not say that journalists are above the law. We are not and do not wish to be. However, intimidation of the media affects the democratic fabric of society," it said.
The letter addressed to CJI Chandrachud demanded framing of norms "to discourage the seizure of journalists' phones and laptops on a whim, as has been the case". It sought evolving guidelines for the interrogation of journalists and for seizures from them to ensure that these are not undertaken as fishing expeditions “with no bearing to actual offence”. It also demanded finding ways to ensure the accountability of State agencies and officers “who are found overstepping the law or willfully misleading courts with vague and open-ended investigations against journalists”.
"As journalists and news professionals, we are always ready and willing to cooperate with any bona fide investigation. However, ad hoc, sweeping seizures and interrogations surely cannot be considered acceptable in any democratic country, let alone one that has begun advertising itself as the ‘mother of democracy’," the letter concluded.
The Delhi Police on Tuesday conducted raids at the homes of senior journalists including Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Abhisar Sharma, Urmilesh, Aunindyo Chakraborty, Bhasha Singh, satirist Sanjay Rajaura, and historian and activist Sohail Hashmi, who write or have written for the news outlet. The police special cell conducted raids at other employees’ residences and at NewsClick offices. A similar action was initiated in Mumbai against activist Teesta Setalvad.