Police in India have arrested a prominent journalist and founder of a news website under a stringent anti-terror law over allegations of receiving foreign money for pro-China propaganda.
NewsClick’s founder and editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha was arrested on Tuesday evening under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and criminal conspiracy charges, local media reports said.
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Amit Chakravarty, head of human resources at the website, was also arrested in the same case, the reports added.
The arrests came after the office of the New Delhi-based English-language news portal and homes of several journalists and writers linked to it were raided as part of an investigation into suspected illegal foreign funding of the media company.
Laptops and mobile phones were taken away as part of the probe.
“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 a home ministry official overseeing the raids by the federally-controlled Delhi Police.
NewsClick officials were not immediately available for comment. The company’s website says it reports on news from India and elsewhere with a focus on “progressive movements”.
‘Crackdown on freedom of press’
Indian authorities registered a case against NewsClick and its journalists on August 17, days after a New York Times report alleged the website had received funds from US millionaire Neville Roy Singham, who, the Times said, “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points”.
The report accused Singham of working closely with Beijing and of “financing its propaganda worldwide”.
Singham and NewsClick rejected the charges. Purkayastha said at the time the allegations were not new and the website would respond to them in court.
Ties between India and China have been strained since 2020, when clashes between the two neighbours’ militaries in a disputed border area killed at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese servicemen.
Since then, New Delhi has banned many Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, and launched tax investigations into some Chinese mobile phone companies.
DIGIPUB's statement condemning the police raids at the homes of journalists and seizure of devices. pic.twitter.com/U77lzSiSnq
— DIGIPUB News India Foundation (@DigipubIndia) October 3, 2023
The raids on Tuesday were conducted at more than a dozen homes of journalists and some other writers linked to NewsClick.
A home ministry official said the raids were part of an investigation by the Enforcement Directorate, India’s financial crime control agency, into suspected money laundering by NewsClick, whose office was also sealed by the Delhi Police.
In a statement, the police said 37 male suspects were questioned at the NewsClick office while nine female suspects were questioned at their residences.
Thirty locations connected with the portal and its journalists were searched, the police said. Among those questioned were journalists Urmilesh, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and historian Sohail Hashmi.
#NewsClickRaids | Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was questioned for nearly 10 hours. He says he was questioned on whether he covered Delhi riots and farmers' protest. pic.twitter.com/HHBNeZa5Eq
— newslaundry (@newslaundry) October 3, 2023
“From the warrant that they reluctantly showed me, the raid at my residence was related to an investigation into NewsClick,” Hashmi told AFP news agency.
Hashmi said he had to hand over his laptop, phone and hard disks containing more than a decade of his writing, calling the raid a “combination of intimidation and a crackdown on freedom of press and speech”.
The Press Club of India said it was deeply concerned by the raids. A group of journalists has planned a protest march in New Delhi on Wednesday.
‘Draconian terror law regime’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the raids were justified as foreign funding to media groups must be assessed by investigating agencies.
“I don’t need to justify,” India’s minister for information and broadcasting Anurag Thakur told reporters about the raids. “If anyone has committed anything wrong, search agencies are free to carry out investigations.”
A statement from the INDIA alliance, a coalition of 28 opposition political parties, said in the last nine years, the government has deliberately persecuted and suppressed the media by using different investigative agencies.
“Even if you were … to believe these allegations at worst you could have targeted the management of the website, but what we are seeing now is that even junior employees are getting raided, even contributors are getting raided,” Shoaib Daniyal, political editor at the Scroll news website, told Al Jazeera.
“India has an extremely draconian terror law regime where people can be arrested and locked away for years without trial,” he added.
India has fallen to 161st rank in the World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking by non-profit Reporters Without Borders, from 150th last year, its lowest ever. Modi’s government rejects the group’s rankings, questioning its methodology, and says India has a vibrant and free press.
A few months ago, Indian tax authorities raided BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, shortly after the British broadcaster released a documentary that was critical of Modi.
Journalists critical of the government complain of increased harassment, including on social media – where Modi’s ruling party has a powerful presence.
Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinising their finances and clamping down on foreign funding.
The Network of Women in Media in India said Tuesday’s “shocking” raids had targeted “prominent voices of dissent”.
On Tuesday evening, journalist Abhisar Sharma said he was back home after a “day-long interrogation” by police.
“I will keep questioning people in power and particularly those who are afraid of simple questions,” he wrote on social media.