The Delhi Police on Tuesday arrested NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakravarty after searching more than 30 locations and questioning several journalists in a case filed under the anti-terror law UAPA following allegations the portal received money for pro-China propaganda.
Police sealed NewsClick's office in Delhi, officials said, adding 46 suspects were questioned and digital devices, including laptops and mobile phones, and documents were taken away for examination.
They said 37 male suspects were questioned at the office of Delhi Police Special Cell, while nine female suspects were quizzed at their respective places of stay.
Two accused -- portal founder and editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and Human Resources head Amit Chakravarty -- have been arrested, Delhi Police spokesperson Suman Nalwa said.
The searches began early in the morning and were concentrated in Delhi-NCR. Earlier in the day, portal founder and editor-in-chief Purkayastha was taken to the Special Cell's office for questioning.
Among those questioned were journalists Urmilesh, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta as well as historian Sohail Hashmi, satirist Sanjay Rajoura and D Raghunandan of the Centre for Technology & Development.
After being questioned for over six hours, they were allowed to go.
"After a day long interrogation by Delhi special cell, I am back home. Each and every question posed will be answered. Nothing to fear . And I will keep questioning people in power and particularly those who are afraid of simple questions . Not backing down at any cost," Abhisar Sharma posted on X.
Addressing a gathering in Bhubaneswar, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said probe agencies in the country are independent and work in accordance with law.
"... If someone has done something wrong, probe agencies work on it... Nowhere it is written that if you have got money in an illegal manner or done something objectionable, then probe agencies cannot investigate that," Thakur said.
Police sources said investigators posed a list of 25 questions on various issues, including their foreign travels, protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Shaheen Bagh as well as the farmers' agitation.
Those being questioned have been divided into three categories, A, B and C, sources said, but did not divulge details on this.
The media firm is under the scanner of the Economic Offences Wing (EoW) of the Delhi Police and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) amid allegations it received funds from China.
A fresh case was registered by the Delhi Police Special Cell against the news portal on August 17 under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other sections of IPC, including Section 153A (promoting enmity between two groups), 120B (criminal conspiracy).
Sources said police have seized laptops and mobile phones related to some journalists, adding that most of the people were questioned about their association with NewsClick and details about their calls to people residing in foreign countries.
In 2021, the Economic Offenses Wing of Delhi Police had started an investigation against NewsClick over suspicious foreign funding. The EoW had also registered an FIR in this case.
The ED in 2022 had attached a South Delhi flat, worth Rs 4.52 crore, linked to Purkayastha apart from fixed deposits worth Rs 41 lakh as part of this money laundering probe.
CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury's official residence at Pt. Ravi Shankar Shukla lane was one of the premised searched by police to question his staffer Sri Narayan's son Sumit, who works with NewsClick.
In a statement, the National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (Delhi unit) claimed that the residences of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Teesta Setalvad,, Mahesh Kumar, Subodh Varma, Aditi Nigam, Mukund Jha and many others were were raided this morning.
The issue caused political ripples with the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Samajwadi Party as well as the Press Club of India reacting to the searches and criticising the government.
Urmilesh and Chakravarty emerged from the Special Cell office at Lodhi Road after about six hours of questioning around 4.15 pm. They did not respond to queries of mediapersons who had gathered at the spot.
"I will not say anything," Urmilesh told the battery of camera crews.
Sharma came out of the probe agency's office about an hour later. He was followed by Raghunandan, who told reporters that he was asked very general questions about NewsClick.
Recalling how the day unfolded, Thakurta told mediapersons that nine police personnel came to his house in Gurugram at 6.30 am. "They asked me various questions and I came with them voluntarily to the office of Delhi Police's Special Cell at Lodhi Colony." On Tuesday morning, a Special Cell team took Sharma with it after questioning him at his home in Noida Extension. Before he was detained, the journalist wrote on X, "Delhi police landed at my home. Taking away my laptop and phone." Another journalist, Bhasha Singh, wrote on X, "Finally last tweet from this phone. Delhi police seizure (sic) my phone." Hashmi's sister Shabnam Hashmi, posted on X, "Today, early morning at 6 am, Delhi Police's special cell raided Sohail Hashmi's residence. 6 people barged into the house and the bedroom." She alleged that the team questioned him for two hours and seized his computer, phone, hard disc and flash drives.
The police action drew sharp reaction from the opposition parties, which accused the BJP of indulging in a "witch-hunt" against journalists who criticise the government.
Opposition bloc INDIA strongly condemned the raids and alleged that the BJP government's "coercive" actions are directed only against those who speak truth to power and not against those who spread hatred and divisiveness.
But, BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla retorted, "The Congress preaching about the press is like Satan preaching about scriptures." Congress leader Pawan Khera said the early morning raids on contributing journalists at NewsClick come as a "fresh distraction from the explosive findings of caste census in Bihar and the growing demand for caste census across the country." "When he faces questions from out of syllabus, he resorts to the only counter he has in his predictable syllabus - DISTRACTION," Khera said on X.
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav said the searches represent a sign of a "losing BJP." "This is not a new thing, BJP rulers have always raided honest journalists. But how many crores of rupees are being given to 'Mitra channels' every month in the name of government 'prachar-prasar' (advertisements), anyone should also print this," Yadav said in a post on X.
AAP chief national spokesperson Priyanka Kakkar alleged the Modi government is pretending to fight China by arresting journalists because it didn't have the courage to engage with it directly.
The Press Club of India said it is deeply concerned about raids on the houses of journalists and writers associated with NewsClick.
"We are monitoring the developments and will be releasing a detailed statement. The PCI stands in solidarity with the journalists and demands the government to come out with details," it said.
In August, the Delhi High Court sought Purkayastha's stand on a plea by the city police seeking vacation of an earlier order granting him interim protection from arrest in an unlawful foreign funding case.
The website recently hit the headlines for allegedly receiving money from US millionaire Neville Roy Singham for pro-China propaganda in India.
Citing an investigation by The New York Times, Thakur had recently claimed that NewsClick's money trail revealed an "anti-India agenda".