NewsClick founder among 2 held as journalists raided
This came after at least 400 police officials raided around 30locations across Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Mumbai and Ghaziabad on Tuesday morning
The Delhi Police on Tuesday arrested the founder and the head of the human resources department of online portal NewsClickafter sweeping raids across five cities over allegations of irregularities in the website’s cashbooks and foreign funding.
A Delhi Police spokesperson said NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and human resource head Amit Chakravarty were arrested in connection with a case registered by the special cell this August under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
This came after at least 400 police officials raided around 30locations across Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Mumbai and Ghaziabad on Tuesday morning, questioning 46 people, including journalists, freelancers, writers and satirists, for eighthours.
“A total of 37 male suspects have been questioned at police station, nine female suspects have been questioned at their respective places of stay and digital devices, documents etc. have been seized for examination,” said the spokesperson.
The raids and arrest sparked a controversy with Opposition parties accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party of trying to muzzle the press, and the government defending itself. Several media bodies also condemned the raids, saying it will have a chilling effect on press freedom.
On August 17, Delhi Police’s special cell registered a case under section 153A (promoting enmity) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and sections 16 (punishment for terrorist act),17 (punishment for raising funds for terrorist act),18 (punishment for conspiracy), and 22C (punishment for offences by companies, societies or trusts) of UAPA.
This camedays after an investigation published in The New York Times alleged that the portal was part of a global network that received money for pushing Chinese propaganda. The American newspaper said that millionaire Neville Roy Singham funded NewsClick, among other outlets across the globe, to sprinkle its coverage with Chinese government talking points.
Those who were questioned and whose devices were seized included Purkayastha, journalists Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Bhasha Singh, Aditi Nigam, Urmilesh, Subodh Verma, D Raghunandan, Githa Hariharan, and historian Sohail Hashmi. Most of them were either consultants with the portal or contributors.
The families of some of them said the raids began around 6am and ended about four hours later, with their laptops, mobile phones, hard disks and some documents seized. Thirty sevenwere also asked to come to the special cell police station on Lodhi Road, where they were questioned further and then asked to leave.
Officials asked some people what articles they wrote on issues such as Covid-19, Delhi riots and the farmers’ protest, indicating that investigators were looking to establish whether the website indulged in propaganda on behalf of alleged Chinese funders.
“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 . Questioned him for two hours . The cops have seized his computer, phone, hard disc and flash drives. His residence was one among many journalists whose houses were raided by the special cell early morning today,” said his sister Shabnam Hashmi.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury’s residence in the Capital was also raided as the son of one of his associates who lives in the same house works with NewsClick. Police seized a phone, two hard drives and a laptop from the house.
“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,” Yechury said.
The developments stoked a political controversy with the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party of muzzling the press.
But the BJP defended itself. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said investigating agencies are independent and they act according to law. “I don’t have to justify the raids. If someone has committed any wrong, investigating agencies do act on them. Nowhere it is written that if you have wrongfully acquired wealth and committed offence, the investigating agencies would not take action,” he said.
Founded in 2009, NewsClick first ran into trouble in 2021, when ED registered a case based on an FIR registered by Delhi Police’s Economic Offence Wing in 2020. Allegations in the FIR included overvaluing of shares, diverting funds, and violation of FDI regulations.
“In 2021, the ED searched the premises of NewsClick and its director Prabir Purkayastha. This search was conducted to collect additional information to help probe money laundering charges against the company. A money trail of foreign remittances amounting to ₹38 crores was also unearthed during the search. In the same year, the economic offence wing (EOW) of Delhi Police also registered a case against NewsClick, which is still under investigation. Today’s arrest have been made in the third case lodged in the special cell,” said a senior Delhi Police officer, wishing not to be named.
The officer cited above further said that during the investigation, many irregularities were found in the cashbook of NewsClick. “Within months of incorporation, NewsClick received crores of funds for services exported, out of which a payment of ₹1.55 crore was made to an electrician. Also, Puryakastha and Gautam Navlakha, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, have incorporated a company together with an American defence supplier company. We have found some e-mails exchanged between Puryakastha and Neville Roy Singham, which were aimed to tarnish India’s image at the international level,” the officer said, requesting anonymity.
“After a day long interrogation... I am back home. Each and every question posed will be answered. Nothing to fear... Not backing down at any cost,” said Abhisar.
A friend of Thakurta said the journalist, who was a consultant with NewsClick, was asked specifically ifhe knew any activists whose names the police read out from a list. “He was asked to hand over his devices but he refused, saying it’s his livelihood. Then, they asked him to come to the police station with them,” he said.
The raids were condemned by press bodies.
“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, due process must be followed. The investigation of specific offences must not create a general atmosphere of intimidation under the shadow of draconian laws, or impinge on freedom of expression and the raising of dissenting and critical voices,” it said.
Indian Women’s Press Corporation (IWPC) said the raids reflected very poorly on a government representing the world’s largest democracy. Press Club of India said it was deeply concerned about the raids and stood in solidarity with the journalists.
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