Income-tax sleuths questioned the NewsClick web portal’s elderly editor-in-chief and its editor for around five hours on Wednesday, almost five months after the Enforcement Directorate had raided their premises over five days.
The grilling took place on a day 71-year-old Prabir Purkayastha, the chief editor, and Pranjal Pandey, the editor, received summons from Delhi police’s economic offences wing to appear before it on July 9. Purkayastha’s plea in Delhi High Court for anticipatory bail in the ED’s money-laundering probe in the same case was adjourned to July 5 on Thursday.
NewsClick, an investigative news site that faces a Rs 100-crore defamation suit by the Adani group, has extensively covered protests, including the ongoing farmers’ movement.
Purkayastha told The Telegraph that he and editor Pranjal Pandey were questioned at NewsClick’s south Delhi office by the IT investigators over their tax filings, transactions, contracts and syndicated content.
“These were virtually the same set of issues (over which) the ED has been questioning us for some time now…. There is clearly an agenda coming from media organisations that don’t like what we are doing. Despite the HC’s order last week, we are yet to receive the ED’s case information report. We have challenged the ED and police case in court and will argue not only for protection from coercive action and bail but also for the FIR to be quashed,” Purkayastha said.
Purkayastha, a CPM member, had been jailed during the Emergency. He suffers from hypertension, diabetes and asthma. The ED raid at his house in February had continued for 113 hours.
Asked about his bail plea, Purkayastha said: “I am willing to stand up to all of this, but it certainly is bad weather for going to Tihar.” Delhi is currently facing a heatwave.
The police and the IT department did not respond to queries from this newspaper on what offences they were now investigating.
The ED’s case is based on an FIR by Delhi police’s economic offences wing last year that alleged that NewsClick had violated foreign direct investment rules by receiving Rs 9.59 crore from a defunct US-based firm — Worldwide Media Holdings LLC — in 2018.
NewsClick has argued that this investment was received before the FDI cap of 26 per cent for digital media was imposed in 2019.
The police summons to Purkayastha on Wednesday quotes the same FIR number.
In February, the ED had searched the offices of the website and its sister concerns, as well as homes of its shareholders and business partners. Bank and tax documents, laptops, mobile phones and email caches of the entire top management and several employees had been seized. No chargesheet has been filed yet.
Purkayastha and Pandey have routinely had to appear for questioning by the ED in the months that followed.
The Indian Express newspaper had quoted unnamed ED sources in February as saying that NewsClick had received Rs 30.51 crore from foreign companies for publishing news on its sister concern Peoples Dispatch — an international news site run in collaboration with several global news outlets. This fact alone, if true, is not illegal.
NewsClick had responded saying: “The selective leak of misleading facts is nothing but a malicious attempt to smear the image of NewsClick and discredit our journalism.”
A Mumbai court permitted the ED to record rights activist Gautam Navlakha’s statement in the NewsClick case for four days in Mumbai’s Taloja jail, where he is held for the alleged terrorist plot at an Ambedkarite event in Bhima-Koregaon in 2017. Navlakha had been a columnist for NewsClick.