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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 23 April 2024

Media groups write to CJI Chandrachud, say ‘journalism cannot be prosecuted as terrorism’

'When journalists are summoned and their devices seized in the name of investigation, there is an inherent malice in the process that must be checked'

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 05.10.23, 04:28 AM
Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, questioned by the special cell on Tuesday, protests the raids on NewsClick at the Press Club in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, questioned by the special cell on Tuesday, protests the raids on NewsClick at the Press Club in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI picture

Students at Jantar Mantar, journalists at Press Club, lawyers in between and concerned citizens everywhere came out to say this shall not pass.

A day after the unprecedented raids and the arrests of employees of NewsClick — a news site that is literally a red rag for the Centre, which has now accused it of terrorism and treason — civil society closed ranks with journalists to fight, in the words of the club’s president, “a long-drawn battle”.

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At the Press Club of India, its president Gautam Lahiri and The Wire portal’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan read out a letter to Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud from several significant journalists’ bodies across the country that said: “The invocation of UAPA is especially chilling. Journalism cannot be prosecuted as ‘terrorism’.”

The signatories added: “The purpose of addressing this letter to you is not to bypass or circumvent the process and procedure established by law. But when journalists are summoned and their devices seized in the name of investigation, there is an inherent malice in the process that must be checked.

“Just as the police are obliged by the Constitution to state the grounds of arrest, it must equally be a precondition to questioning. In its absence, as we have seen in the NewsClick case, vague assertions about the investigation of some unspecified offence have become the grounds for questioning journalists about their coverage of, inter alia, the farmers’ movement, the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic and the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The protest meeting at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on Wednesday against the police action on NewsClick.

The protest meeting at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on Wednesday against the police action on NewsClick. Pheroze L Vincent

“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. And 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.”

Their three demands to the CJI are:

“1. The framing of norms to discourage the seizure of journalists’ phones and laptops on a whim, as has been the case…

“2. 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 an actual offence.

“3. Finding ways to ensure the accountability of State agencies and individual officers who are found overstepping the law or willfully misleading courts with vague and open-ended investigations against journalists for their journalistic work.”

Shortly after these demands were read out, a man who identified himself as Sagar from the news outlet Shashwat News held up a placard in Hindi saying, “Send the brokers of China to jail.”

When questioned, he said: “I don’t know anything. It is my right to hold this up.” He was later pushed out by journalists.

“Let’s assume The New York Times is correct,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta — an investigative reporter who is also a consultant to NewsClick — “The question is where does terror money come into all of this?” The case against NewsClick has reportedly been filed on the basis of an NYT report that one of its investors, Neville Roy Singham, finances Chinese propaganda.

Thakurta had also been quizzed for the whole day, although his devices were returned to him.

NewsClick said in a statement: “1. Newsclick is an independent news website.

“2. Our journalistic content is based on the highest standards of the profession.

“3. Newsclick does not publish any news or information at the behest of any Chinese entity or authority, directly or indirectly.

“4. Newsclick does not propagate Chinese propaganda on its website.

“5. Newsclick does not take directions from Neville Roy Singham regarding the content published on its website.

“6. All funding received by Newsclick has been through the appropriate banking channels and has been reported to the relevant authorities as required by law, as substantiated by the Reserve Bank of India in proceedings before the High Court of Delhi.”

The news portal added: “The Special Cell of Delhi Police has not referred to a single article or video that they consider to be Chinese propaganda. Indeed, the line of questioning adopted by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police — regarding reportage on the Delhi riots, the farmers’ protests, etc., all demonstrate the motivated and malicious intent behind the present proceedings.”

Author Arundhati Roy, academics Mukul Kesavan, Mridula Mukherjee, Ramachandra Guha and Zoya Hasan, and all the leading faces of Delhi’s activist vanguard, such as Harsh Mander and Yogendra Yadav, were present at the Press Club along with student groups and trade unions.

RJD parliamentarian Manoj Jha, who joined the protest, told The Telegraph: “The regime is so rattled with the Bihar caste census, as it is apparent from their statement, that they resorted to this diversion. All the journalists investigated by them are known for their professionalism and commitment to the people of India. The same journalists questioned the UPA as well on their policies, but this never happened. The desperation of the BJP in targeting NewsClick yesterday and arresting (AAP MP) Sanjay Singh today indicates that they have lost the plot.”

Historian Mridula Mukherjee couldn’t think of a similar police action in Indian history on journalists on this scale. “There is no doubt that the British were very oppressive, 10,000 were killed in the Quit India movement. The Emergency was also oppressive. Quit India happened during the Second World War, when the Defence of India Act was in force. During the Emergency, legal provisions for censorship were used. But here we have the absence of the rule of law, where the UAPA which is meant to deal with terrorism is being misused to pick up journalists,” she said.

At a gathering attended by Leftist student groups and trade unions, social activist Shabnam Hashmi said: “If we have to defeat the fascists in 2024, we can’t leave it to political parties. All people who love diversity, democracy, the idea of India, and equality of its people should hit the streets. Attacks will only increase on us as there are no more diversions the government can create to distract us from their misdeeds.”

Hashmi’s brother and cultural activist Sohail was also quizzed by sleuths although he is not linked to NewsClick.

The CPM-backed All India Lawyers Union held a march from Jantar Mantar to the Press Club to protest against the crackdown on NewsClick.

The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled cited Indian and international legal norms to demand special care for NewsClick’s arrested HR head Amit Chakraborty, who is a polio survivor on crutches.

The group said: “The news portal has been consistently championing the cause of the marginalised sections including disabled people. In this people-centric approach, the portal has been consistently carrying reports and articles on various struggles and issues of the disabled community and sought to lend a voice to their issues…. Until his release, he should be lodged in a facility that takes care of his accessibility needs.”

Amnesty International said in a statement: “The NewsClick raids and the arrest of (editor-in-chief) Prabir Purkayastha and Amit Chakravarty are the latest attempts by the Indian government to decimate independent and critical media.”

Protests also took place against the NYT in New York, and back home at JNU and in Patna, over the past two days.

7-day remand

NewsClick editor Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakraborty were on Wednesday reman­d­ed in police custody for seven days by a Delhi court, reports our special correspondent.

“Investigation is still going on in the case and more people are likely to be called for questioning in the next few days,” a police officer said.

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