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regular-article-logo Saturday, 22 June 2024

NewsClick raids spark alarm as journalists resolve to hold demonstration, write to CJI

The INDIA bloc condemned the police action as the 'BJP government’s fresh attack on the media'

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 04.10.23, 04:46 AM
Sealed office of NewsClick at Sainik Farm following a raid by Delhi Police Special Cell officials, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

Sealed office of NewsClick at Sainik Farm following a raid by Delhi Police Special Cell officials, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. PTI photo

Then they came for the journalists… and the sanitation staff who work with the journalists, and those who had been journalists years ago, and even those interning to become journalists.

Not only the entire management of the NewsClick news portal but also ancillary staff, former employees and trainees, and even the widow of a former employee — received police at their homes after sunrise — some in plainclothes, and some in uniforms of the Delhi police and central armed police forces.

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Condemnation of the raids was swift, sharp and widespread. An impromptu gathering of journalists at the Press Club of India resolved to hold a demonstration on Wednesday and write to the Chief Justice of India. This was endorsed by all major journalists’ groups.

“Did you cover the farmers’ protests,” “Did you write on Covid,” “Did you cover the Delhi riots or go to Shaheen Bagh,” “What did you write about the G20”, “Why do you write for NewsClick” — were some of the questions journalists said they were asked by special cell investigators.

The case to uncover alleged acts of terrorism is said to be based on a report in
The New York Times where the only direct accusation against NewsClick is that of uploading a video that has the line: “China’s history continues to inspire the working classes.”

The Editors Guild of India said: “The raids are reportedly being conducted in connection with an FIR filed under the draconian UAPA and laws
relating to criminal conspiracy and disruption of communal harmony against
journalists, including those associated with the website Newsclick.in.”

The Editors Guild of India added: "EGI is concerned that these raids are yet another attempt to muzzle the media. While we recognise that the law must take its course if actual offences are involved, the (sic) due process has to be followed. The investigation of specific offences must not create a general atmosphere of intimidation under the shadow of draconian laws, or impinge on the freedom of expression and the raising of dissenting and critical voices.”

The INDIA bloc condemned the police action as the “BJP government’s fresh attack on the media”.

The bloc said: “Both the government and its ideologically aligned organisations have resorted to reprisals against individual journalists who spoke truth to power. Furthermore, the BJP government has also spearheaded regressive policies like the Information Technology Rules 2021 that constrict the media from reporting objectively. In doing so, the BJP is not only hiding its sins of ommission and commission from the people of India. It is also compromising India’s global standing as a mature democracy.

“The BJP government’s coercive actions are invariably directed against only those media organisations and journalists that speak truth to power. Ironically, the BJP government is paralysed when it comes to taking action against those journalists inciting hatred and divisiveness in the nation.”

Its member parties also issued statements, as did rights organisations.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties said: “It is necessary to point out that the journalists were detained and have been interrogated for hours by the police, in a manner clearly seeking to harass and intimidate them. The larger purpose also is to vilify and create an anti-national narrative against these independent journalists in the public mind and as reprisal for their fair and brave reporting.”

It added: “The echoes of the Emergency of 1975-77 are there in today’s unconstitutional raids and all of us have to stand in solidarity against those being subjected to the high-handedness of a tyrannical and lawless state which in its arrogance is forgetting that it too is subject to the Constitution.”

Those who were let off after a daylong grilling session were journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Urmilesh, Abhisar Sharma, Aunindyo Chakraborty, science columnist D. Raghunandan, satirist Sanjay Rajoura who does a video show for the website, cultural activist Sohail Hashmi, and Pranjal Pandey, former editor of NewsClick and the CPM’s representative in the working groups on media for the INDIA bloc.

Thakurta told reporters when he left the special cell: “Nine police personnel came to my home in Gurugram at 6.30 in the morning…. I came with them voluntarily to the special cell of the Delhi police. The same set of questions were asked over and over again, ‘Am I an employee of NewsClick’, I said, 'No, I'm a consultant.'... After I came here I learnt that an FIR has been lodged apparently under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.”

Editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha — a 73-year-old member of the CPM — and the firm’s HR head Amit Chakraborty were arrested later in the day. The website’s office was sealed. A related institution, Tricontinental Research, was also raided. Purkayastha had faced a five-day-long raid by the Enforcement Directorate in a related case in 2021. The investigation is still pending.

The police also seized private papers, notes and books from the homes of authors Nilanjan Mukhopdhyay and Githa Hariharan — who stays with Purkayastha. Mobile phones and laptops were seized from employees and freelancers for the publication, which owns these devices.

One of them, an occasional contributor of articles — ironically, on media freedom — told The Telegraph: “If it is a banned publication, then let the government say so. The space to write the truth is shrinking and NewsClick is one of the few that gave that space.”

Another told this newspaper: "The order shown to me mentioned a search but no seizure. However, they took away my phone and laptop."

Neither was given hash values of the seized devices. A hash value is a unique number that identifies an electronic device. It changes if any change is made to the device’s storage, and is used to ascertain whether a device has been tampered with.

At the Press Club meeting, Siddharth Varadarajan said: “As representatives of this institution that is so central to keep Indian democracy alive, we will be writing to the CJI. Not just any CJI, but someone who in court and outside has often emphasised the importance of press freedom. And we intend to draft a letter reminding the CJI of what he has been saying… and why at this time it is crucial that he takes the initiative to defend this fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.”

Varadarajan is founder of The Wire and a member of Digipub, the digital news industry body that NewsClick is also part of.

Manini Chatterjee, former editor (national affairs) of this newspaper, said at the meeting: “Today’s raids are quite unprecedented…. It is chilling. What has happened is extraordinary. Our response should also be not just statements.”

The police visited CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s official residence on Pandit Ravishankar Shukla Lane to seize devices of a NewsClick employee who stays there.

The party said in a statement: “This is a brazen assault on the media and the fundamental right to freedom of expression…. Such a large-scale authoritarian assault against media organisations and journalists who speak truth to power is totally unacceptable.

"The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India(Marxist) calls upon all Indian democratic-minded patriots to rise in unison to protest against such a systematic conspiracy to target, persecute and suppress the media that is meant to be the conscience keeper.”

Student groups are expected to gather for a protest at Jantar Mantar at 3pm on Wednesday. Protests will also happen on campuses, including JNU.

Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav tweeted: “The raids are a sign of the losing BJP.”

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