Police in the Indian capital, Delhi, have raided the homes of prominent journalists and authors in connection with an investigation into the funding of news website NewsClick.
NewsClick’s founder Prabir Purkayastha and a colleague were arrested. Police also seized laptops and mobile phones.
Officials are reportedly investigating allegations that NewsClick got illegal funds from China – a charge it denies.
Critics say the move is an intentional attack on press freedom.
Started in 2009, NewsClick is an independent news and current affairs website known to be critical of the government. In 2021, it was raided by tax authorities on allegations of breaking India’s foreign direct investment rules.
The co-ordinated raids at 30 locations on Tuesday are some of the largest and most extensive on India’s media in recent years. Police later confirmed they had arrested Mr Purkayastha and Amit Chakravarty, the website’s head of human resources.
“A total of 37 male suspects have been questioned at premises, nine female suspects have been questioned at their respective places of stay and digital devices, documents etc have been seized/collected for examination,” a police statement said.
Opposition leaders accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of a “fresh attack on the media”. But Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said investigative agencies were merely doing their job.
How did the raids happen?
Among those also questioned were 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 office in Delhi, news agency ANI reported.
In Mumbai, activist Teesta Setalvad’s house was also searched. Ms Setalvad has long fought for victims of the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat state and has written articles critical of the government for NewsClick.
A source close to Mr Purkayastha told the BBC that more than 15 policemen arrived at the editor’s home at 06:30 local time (01:00 GMT).
“They did not produce any warrants or paperwork, questioned him for several hours and took away all the electronic devices they found at home,” they said. Later, news agencies showed him being taken away by the police in a vehicle.
Mr Rajoura’s lawyer, Ilin Saraswat, said the comedian was raided at the same time and that police took away his laptop, his two phones, some DVDs of his old work and some documents.
“The police said that Mr Rajoura is not named in the current investigation, but since he has worked with the website, he will be interrogated. We have not been provided a copy of the police complaint,” he added.
According to reports, the raids are in connection with a case registered against NewsClick in August after a New York Times report alleged that the website had received funds from an American millionaire to spread “Chinese propaganda”.
It claimed that Neville Roy Singham worked closely with the “Chinese government media machine” and used his network of non-profit groups and shell companies to “finance its propaganda worldwide”.
A case was reportedly registered against the website under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a draconian anti-terror law that makes it nearly impossible to get bail. NewsClick has rejected all the charges as false.
Who was raided?
All the people who were raided have been associated with NewsClick – some are employees, while others have worked on freelance projects.
Prabir Purkayastha, its founder and editor-in-chief, is the author of a number of books and a founding member of the Delhi Science Forum. During the 1975 Emergency – when civil liberties were suspended – he was jailed along with several opposition politicians.
Bhasha Singh is an activist and journalist who has reported extensively on manual scavenging and farmers’ suicides. She has accused the government of being anti-women and on Monday appeared in a NewsClick video expressing concern over the increasing trend of members of the governing BJP praising the man who assassinated India’s independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Abhisar Sharma is a prominent video journalist known for his critical views of the government. He worked for BBC Hindi before moving to work at the NDTV news channel. One of his last videos covered widespread protests by government employees against a new pension scheme.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, writer, journalist and filmmaker, is best known for his investigations into billionaire tycoon Gautam Adani and is facing several defamation suits filed by the industrialist. Earlier this year, he was mentioned in a report by Hindenburg Research which alleged that companies owned by Mr Adani had engaged in decades of “brazen” stock manipulation and accounting fraud – allegations denied by the industrialist who is perceived as being close to PM Modi.
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 biting political satire that often critiques India’s ruling party. His work spans such topics as caste, masculinity, freedom of speech and fake news.
Sohail Hashmi is a historian, activist and filmmaker who’s been holding talks and heritage walks on Delhi’s history for over a decade. This month, Sahmat, a trust run by him, is organising programmes to observe the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination.
Irfan Khan is a political cartoonist who has spent three decades working for some of India’s biggest English and Hindi newspapers and TV channels. 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 police are yet to share full details of their investigation – and it’s not clear when they will do so – but the raids have angered many people. Some saw parallels with police raids during the 1975 Emergency under Indira Gandhi.
Journalists and news organisations condemned the raids, calling them another instance of the government’s pattern of arbitrary and intimidatory behaviour”.
The Press Club of India said it was “deeply concerned” and urged the government to “come out with details”.
In a joint statement, the National Alliance of Journalists and Delhi Union of Journalists accused the government of targeting NewsClick for “their coverage of 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 searched BBC offices in India, questioning staff about the organisation’s business operations in the country. The searches in Delhi and Mumbai had come weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary in the UK critical of Mr Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Tax officials also accused the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper of tax evasion in 2021 after its critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, has placed India in 161st place in its press freedom rankings this year. It said the situation in the country has deteriorated from “problematic” to “very bad” and compared it with Tajikistan (at 153rd) and Turkey (at 165th).
“One of the reasons why NewsClick is independent is because I think it is critical of the ruling government, because at this point of time, no mainstream media can afford to be critical of the government,” Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist in Mumbai, told BBC Newshour.
She said one of the reasons behind the raids on the organisation was “because it has been publishing news critical of the Modi government, especially over the last two, three years”.