Police in Delhi have raided the homes of senior journalists connected to the news website NewsClick, as well as the outlet’s offices, in what was described by critics as the latest attack on one of India’s few remaining independent news organisations.
Laptops and mobile phones belonging to reporters were seized as part of the operation carried out early on Tuesday, which the Narendra Modi government described as part of a probe into suspected illegal foreign funding of the news website.
NewsClick’s founder and editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha was brought to the Delhi police’s Special Cell office for questioning.
“A special investigations team launched a search operation to identify all those individuals who were possibly getting funds from overseas to run a media group with the main agenda of spreading foreign propaganda,” said an official in the home ministry overseeing the raids carried out by Delhi police.
A team of 500 officials raided over 100 locations in Delhi, the wider National Capital Region and Mumbai, reported India Today.
The Indian authorities had first registered a case against the site and its journalists on 17 August, weeks after a New York Times report alleged the portal received funds from an American millionaire who, it claimed, funded the spread of “Chinese propaganda”.
NewsClick has denied the allegations.
The case was filed under a sweeping anti-terrorism law – the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – that allows charges to be brought for “anti-national activities”.
The law has been used against activists, journalists and critics of Mr Modi, some of whom have spent years in jail before going to trial. No one has been arrested in connection with the raids on NewsClick so far.
The Press Trust of India news agency cited unidentified officials as saying that investigators took data from laptops and mobile phones of journalists, and that two journalists were detained.
At least two journalists posted on X saying their electronic devices were seized.
“Delhi police landed at my home. Taking away my laptop and phone,” said journalist Abhisar Sharma.
Delhi police landed at my home. Taking away my laptop and Phone...
— Abhisar Sharma (@abhisar_sharma) October 3, 2023
Delhi police did not immediately respond for a comment. “We have not arrested anyone and the search operations are still underway,” an official told Reuters.
India’s junior minister for information and broadcasting, Anurag Thakur, told reporters that “if anyone has committed anything wrong, search agencies are free to carry out investigations against them”.
In August, Mr Thakur accused NewsClick of spreading an “anti-India agenda”, citing the New York Times, and of working with the opposition Indian National Congress party. Both NewsClick and the Congress party denied the accusations.
The homes of past and present NewsClick contributors, including satirist and stand-up comic Sanjay Rajoura and historian Sohail Hashmi, were also raided.
Police also carried out raids at the house of opposition leader Sitaram Yechury and Mumbai-based activist Teesta Setalvad, whose think-tank Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has contributed articles to the platform.
“Initially, they barged into our house without showing us the search warrant,” Mr Hashmi’s daughter Sarah Hashmi told The Quint.
“They only said that they want to investigate all those linked to the NewsClick investigation. Upon asking them again, we were handed over the warrant which my father read. He was questioned by the officials and was asked what he does, and who he is associated with. They have seized his laptop, phone, hard disk and pen drives.”
Mr Yechury, a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, said police came to his residence looking for the son of a party member who works at NewsClick.
“Police came to my residence because one of my companions who lives with me there, his son, works for NewsClick. The police came to question him. They took his laptop and phone. What are they investigating? Nobody knows. If this is an attempt to try and muzzle the media, the country must know the reason behind this,” he told reporters.
NewsClick officials were not immediately available for comment. The news portal’s website says it is an independent media organisation launched in 2009 and “dedicated to covering news from India and elsewhere with a focus on progressive movements”.
Officials said the investigation began after the NYT report named NewsClick as part of a global network receiving funds from American billionaire Neville Roy Singham, allegedly with a view to publishing Chinese propaganda.
NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha said at the time the allegations were not new and the organisation would respond to them in court.
Under Mr Modi’s rule, several news organisations have been investigated by government agencies for financial impropriety, raising fears about shrinking press freedom in India.
Shashi Tharoor, sitting parliamentarian and member of the opposition Congress party, issued a statement criticising the “authoritarian” government.
Shocked to learn of the raids on 30 journalists in Delhi and arrests of several of them. These are not the actions of a “mother of democracy” but of an insecure and autocratic state. Why does a government as strong & authoritarian as this one is, feel threatened by a news…
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) October 3, 2023
“Shocked to learn of the raids on 30 journalists in Delhi and arrests of several of them,” he wrote on X.
“These are not the actions of a ‘mother of democracy’ but of an insecure and autocratic state. Why does a government as strong & authoritarian as this one is, feel threatened by a news website? And that too, one that is not even ranked very high in reach or readership? Intolerance is unworthy of everything that India represents. The government has disgraced itself and our democracy today.”
“Such things are done to intimidate and create fear,” said Lalan Singh, a lawmaker and president of the JD(U) opposition party.
“When a [section of] media promotes them (BJP), then that media is unbiased, whereas when another (section of) media criticises them, they face actions by CBI [India’s Central Bureau of Investigation], ED [Enforcement Directorate] and IT [Income Tax department] in a bid to intimidate them.”
VIDEO | “Such things are done to intimidate and create fear. When a (section of) media promotes them (BJP), then that media is unbiased, whereas when another (section of) media criticises them, they face actions by CBI, ED and IT in a bid to intimidate them,” says JD(U) president… pic.twitter.com/nJmGQWBERc
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) October 3, 2023
The Press Club of India (PCI) said it was “deeply concerned about the multiple raids conducted on the houses of journalists and writers associated with NewsClick”.
“The PCI stand in solidarity with the journalists and demands the government to come out with details,” it wrote in a statement on X.
Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, ranked India 161st in its press freedom rankings this year, writing that the situation in the country has deteriorated from “problematic” to “very bad”.