NewsClick: Indian police arrest journalists over China funding claims

  • By Zoya Mateen
  • BBC News, Delhi

image source, Getty Images

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NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha was arrested on Tuesday evening

Police in the Indian capital Delhi have searched the homes of prominent journalists and authors in connection with an investigation into the financing of the news website NewsClick.

NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and a colleague were arrested. Police also confiscated laptops and cell phones.

Officials are reportedly investigating allegations that NewsClick received illegal funds from China – an allegation the company denies.

Critics believe the move is a deliberate attack on press freedom.

Founded in 2009, NewsClick is an independent news and current affairs website that is known to be critical of the government. In 2021, the company was raided by tax authorities for alleged violations of India’s foreign direct investment rules.

The coordinated raids at 30 locations on Tuesday were among the largest and most extensive reported by India’s media in recent years. Police later confirmed that they had arrested Mr Purkayastha and Amit Chakravarty, the website’s human resources manager.

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One of the journalists, Urmilesh (center), leaves a police station in central Delhi after being questioned

“A total of 37 male suspects were interrogated at the premises, nine female suspects were interrogated at their respective locations and digital devices, documents etc. were seized/collected for investigation,” a police statement said.

Opposition leaders accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of a “new attack on the media”. But Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said the investigating agencies were just doing their job.

How did the raids come about?

Those interviewed also included journalists Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Urmilesh, Bhasha Singh, popular satirist Sanjay Rajoura and historian Sohail Hashmi. Some were taken to police stations.

Searches were also carried out at the website’s Delhi office, news agency ANI reported.

Activist Teesta Setalvad’s house was also searched in Mumbai. Ms. Setalvad has long campaigned for victims of the deadly riots in Gujarat state in 2002 and has written articles critical of the government for NewsClick.

A source close to Mr Purkayastha told the BBC that more than 15 police officers arrived at the editor’s home at 06:30 local time (01:00 GMT).

“They provided no search warrants or documentation, interrogated him for several hours, and took all electronic devices they found at home,” they said. News outlets later showed him being taken away in a vehicle by police.

Mr Rajoura’s lawyer, Ilin Saraswat, said the comedian was searched at the same time and police took his laptop, his two phones, some DVDs of his old works and some documents.

“Police said Mr Rajoura is not named in the current investigation but as he has cooperated with the website, he is being questioned. No copy of the police complaint has been provided to us,” he added.

The raids are reportedly related to a lawsuit filed against NewsClick in August after a New York Times report claimed the site received funds from an American millionaire to spread “Chinese propaganda.”

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Over 30 locations were searched in Delhi

It was alleged that Neville Roy Singham worked closely with the “Chinese government’s media machine” and used his network of nonprofit groups and shell companies to “fund their propaganda worldwide.”

A case has reportedly been registered against the website under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a draconian anti-terrorism law that makes getting bail almost impossible. NewsClick has denied all allegations as false.

Who was attacked?

All of the people searched are associated with NewsClick – some are employees, while others worked on freelance projects.

Prabir Purkayastha, Its founder and editor-in-chief is the author of several books and a founding member of the Delhi Science Forum. During the 1975 State of Emergency, when civil liberties were suspended, he was imprisoned along with several opposition politicians.

Bhasha Singh is an activist and journalist who has reported extensively on manual scavenging and farmer suicides. She has accused the government of being misogynistic and appeared in a NewsClick video on Monday in which she expressed concern about the increasing tendency of members of the ruling BJP to praise the man who assassinated India’s independence leader Mahatma Gandhi .

Abhisar Sharma is a well-known video journalist known for his critical views on the government. He worked for BBC Hindi before joining news channel NDTV. One of his recent videos reported widespread protests by government workers against a new pension system.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, writer, journalist and filmmaker, is best known for his investigations against billionaire tycoon Gautam Adani and is facing several defamation suits from the industrialist. Earlier this year, he was mentioned in a report by Hindenburg Research that alleged that companies owned by Mr. Adani had engaged in “brazen” stock manipulation and accounting fraud for decades – allegations made by the industrialist, who is considered close to Prime Minister Modi , rejected.

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Sanjay Rajoura is a popular stand-up comedian who has worked in Bollywood and is part of the comedy music trio Aisi Taisi Democracy (Democracy Be Damned). Mr. Rajoura is known for his biting political satire, often criticizing India’s ruling party. His work covers topics such as caste, masculinity, freedom of expression and fake news.

Sohail Hashmi is a historian, activist and filmmaker who has been giving lectures and heritage tours on Delhi’s history for over a decade. This month, Sahmat, a foundation he heads, is organizing programs to mark the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination.

Irfan Khan is a political cartoonist who has worked for some of India’s largest English and Hindi newspapers and television channels for three decades. His cartoons use satire to comment on major news events and he has also worked with the Election Commission of India on voter awareness campaigns.

What’s happening now?

The Press Club of India said it was “deeply concerned” and called on the government to “provide details.”

In a joint statement, the National Alliance of Journalists and the Delhi Union of Journalists accused the government of targeting NewsClick for “its reporting on the issues of workers and farmers.”

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, a number of media outlets have been investigated for alleged financial impropriety, raising fears about press freedom in the world’s largest democracy.

Earlier this year, tax officials raided BBC offices in India and questioned employees about the organization’s business activities in the country. The searches in Delhi and Mumbai came weeks after the broadcaster in the United Kingdom aired a documentary criticizing Mr. Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Tax officials also accused the newspaper Dainik Bhaskar of tax evasion in 2021 after it reported critically on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reporters Without Borders, a journalist advocacy group, ranked India 161st in its press freedom rankings this year. It said the situation in the country had deteriorated from “problematic” to “very bad” and compared it to Tajikistan (153rd) and Turkey (165th).

“One of the reasons why NewsClick is independent, in my opinion, is that it is critical of the ruling government, because at this point no mainstream media can afford to be critical of the government,” says Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist in Mumbai. said BBC Newshour.

She said one of the reasons for the crackdown on the organization was “because it has been publishing critical news about the Modi government, particularly in the last two, three years.”

Additional reporting by Meryl Sebastian in Kochi and Simon Fraser in London

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