In the wee hours of October 3, 2023, in what will be known as one of the most extensive crackdowns on press freedom in the country in recent times, homes of 46 journalists—all associated with NewsClick—were raided by the Delhi Police’s special cell, which usually probes cases related to terrorism. While some were contributors, the others included those who had less than two years of experience.
The raids come almost seven months after tax officials conducted similar ‘searches’ at the BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi after the broadcaster aired a documentary in the UK, which was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Among those who were questioned were senior journalists Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Urmilesh, Bhasha Singh, popular satirist Sanjay Rajoura and historian Sohail Hashmi. None of them knew what they were being accused of initially. Police personnel, probe agencies and a Union Minister claimed that they need not justify their actions.
Once daylight faded and journalists came out of detention, the police gave a statement that Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of NewsClick, and the organisation’s Human Resources (HR) head, Amit Chakravarty, had been arrested under sections of the draconian anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—UAPA.
“This sends a clear message to all journalists—look what we can do to you. This is a way of stifling freedom of expression and the working of media in this country,” Thakurta told Outlook. A small portion of the media is still trying to do its job by holding truth to power and critically looking at the actions of those in power and not the Opposition—the message goes to them, he says.
The First Information Report (FIR), which triggered the arrest, was filed after an explosive report in The New York Times alleged that NewsClick received funding from American businessman Neville Roy Singham to promote pro-Chinese government coverage. It reported that corporate filings reveal how Singham’s network sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points to the extent of reportedly showing how “China’s history continues to inspire the working classes”.
While the report became the grounds for another clampdown on press freedom, it in no way suggested that the organisation had committed any terrorist act against India, even as the FIR invokes terror charges against the journalists. So far, there has been no concrete evidence in the case.
NewsClick has dismissed the allegations, stating that they lack factual basis and are currently sub judice. The media house had emphasised its respect for the legal process and refrained from engaging in a “media trial.”
For now, its office has been sealed. If it remains shut then People’s Dispatch, Leaflet and others who have collaborations with NewsClick will also face ramifications, says a journalist on the condition of anonymity.
The news portal has been under the spotlight since 2021 when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) first launched an investigation into the organisation over its alleged links with China. Raids have been conducted in the past as well and electronic devices of journalists like phones and computers have been seized. In many cases, officials did not follow the due process during these ‘searches’, journalists say.
Upon their release, almost all of them said that the police kept asking them whether they covered the 2020 Delhi riots, the farmers’ protest, the anti-CAA protests, and even the Covid crisis. They were asked why they covered these stories that portrayed India in a bad light.
This is not a standalone instance of raids at media offices and journalists after their critical coverage or dissent against the government. A trend has emerged in the last decade where central agencies like the Income Tax Department, ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation have been knocking at the doors of media offices, including BBC, The Quint, Dainik Bhaskar, NDTV and others following their critical reportage of the government. These ‘searches’ have often been termed as “routine checks”, or otherwise investigated under anti-terror laws over financial discrepancies.
A new report by Freedom House, a Washington DC-based non-profit, raises concerns on press freedom in India ever since the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014. The report says: “The Narendra Modi government’s expanding censorship regime is creating an uneven playing field by silencing criticism and independent reporting on the ruling party.”
According to the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), a total of 194 journalists, including seven women journalists, were targeted across India in 2022 by state agencies, non-state political actors and criminals, and armed opposition groups. From 2010 till date, 16 journalists have been charged under UAPA—five are currently behind bars. Two journalists managed to secure freedom from UAPA, one with an acquittal and the other, with a discharge. While Santosh Yadav from Chhattisgarh was acquitted in 2020, Kamran Yousuf from Pulwama secured a discharge in 2022.
Rupesh Kumar Singh is an independent Hindi journalist from Jharkhand and has been in jail since July 17, 2022 over his alleged Maoist links. Irfan Mehraj, a Kashmiri journalist and human rights activist, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a similar fashion in March this year and was accused of ”funding terror activities”. Asif Sultan was arrested for “harboring known pro-freedom fighters” while working as an assistant editor for a Srinagar-based English magazine Kashmir Narrator. Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul were arrested under UAPA while working with the Srinagar-based independent news website The Kashmir Walla.
Manan Gulzar Dar is a young freelance photojournalist from Jammu and Kashmir, who was detained in October 2021 for his alleged terror links and militant conspiracy. He secured bail in April this year. Gautam Navlakha, who worked with NewsClick before his arrest, is currently under house arrest after being shifted from Taloja Central Jail in November 2022.
The UAPA arsenal of the government has been known for leaving little room for judicial reasoning, making it virtually impossible for granting bail to those accused under it. It was brought to curb terrorism. But over the last decade, patriotism, national security and alleged anti-national activities have been included in the array of charges under UAPA, as the Delhi police’s FIR for the arrest of Prabir Purkayastha, the editor of NewsClick, shows.
The NewsClick raids send a very important message of crumbling press freedom in the country ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. India has dropped to an abysmal rank of 161 among the 180 countries surveyed in the Press Freedom Index, and has fallen 50 points over the last 10 years. The government has often denied the rankings on the grounds that they gave little or no weightage to the fundamentals of a democracy.
In an earlier interview with Caravan, NewsClick editor Purkayastha had said: “Formally, the press freedom is there but then you have different instruments now, to silence the press… And therefore, I think this is a longer battle. And a more difficult battle because the battle is not only retaining our rights but also the minds and the hearts of the people.”
—Compiled by Anisha Reddy and Sharmita Kar
(This appeared in the print as 'Silencing The Messenger')