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Media crackdown in India: NewsClick raids alarm journalists

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
October 5, 2023

Police in India are using anti-terror laws against journalists, including the latest raid on the anti-Modi NewsClick outlet over alleged links to China.

Indian reporters attend a protest meet organized at the Press Club of India in New Delhi
Several media organizations asked the country's top courts to intervene and protect freedom of speechImage: Newslaundry

Hundreds of journalists, civil society activists and free speech campaigners rallied in New Delhi this week over the raids targeting reporters working for NewsClick.

The move of unprecedented solidarity came after Indian authorities arrested NewsClick's founder Prabir Purkayastha and its human resources head Amit Chakravarty under the terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Many of the activists are worried about the future of free speech in India, and say law enforcement agencies are using UAPA to target reporters who don't follow the government's narrative.

"We are at a point when as a journalist there are only two options left — to speak the truth or silence ourselves," Hartosh Bal, executive editor of The Caravan magazine, told DW.

"The truth is we are veering towards an elected autocracy, and this is being done behind a facade of process, a process not meant to deliver justice, but subvert it," he added.

At the same time, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur told the press he did not "need to justify the raids."

"The probe agencies are independent and they are doing their jobs. If someone has done something wrong, the probe agencies do their job," he said.

Thakur had previously accused NewsClick of spreading an "anti-India agenda" and being connected to the opposition Indian National Congress party. 

What happened to NewsClick?

NewsClick has been fiercely critical of India's conservative government led by Narendra Modi. In August, the New York Times published an investigative report that alleged that the organization had received funds from US-based businessman Neville Roy Singham, who is accused of working closely with Beijing and financing Chinese propaganda internationally.

Prabir Purkayastha riding in the back of a police car
Prabir Purkayastha (l) and his news outlet denied spreading Chinese propagandaImage: Dinesh Joshi/AP Photo/picture alliance

The NYT report also stated that the Indian news outlet had "sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points."

Earlier this week, Indian police raided homes of journalists who worked as staff or contributors for NewsClick.

Electronic devices including laptops and telephones of dozens of journalists were seized by the police. The authorities also targeted occasional contributors to the outlet. A total of 46 persons were questioned by the police.

The police now allege that the news portal had been receiving funds since 2018 from three different entities — two linked to US-based Singham and a third to his wife's NGO.

According to the special branch of the Delhi Police there were "secret inputs" that "foreign funds have been infused illegally" in India by unfriendly entities.

"It is to cause disaffection against India and to threaten the unity, integrity, security of India," the police said.

What were reactions from the government and the media?

The ruling BJP party said the raids against NewsClick were conducted based on evidence.

"Those involved in anti-India activities will face the strictest action as people have given the mandate to the Modi government to deal firmly with such elements," BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said at the party's national headquarters.

But others, including Bal from The Caravan magazine, view alleged China links as an excuse.

"The China threat is a pretext to target those who question an increasingly tyrannical government," he said.

The raids and the arrest of Prabir Purkayastha triggered outrage in India. But he is not the first reporter to face anti-terror charges. From 2010 until today, 16 journalists are believed to have been charged under UAPA, including several in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

Why is India targeting NewsClick journalists?

India's Free Speech Collective reports that at least eight journalists are behind bars facing charges under the UAPA.

"This law seeks to criminalize journalists legitimate work and stigmatize them as 'terrorists' as well as having a chilling effect on the professional at large. This is absurd, illogical and illegal," Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective told DW.

Why are the raids happening now?

A coalition of 18 media organisations including the Press Club of India, Digipub News, Indian Women Press Corps and the Foundation for Media Professionals have written to India's chief justice, urging the higher judiciary to intervene and put an end to the "increasingly repressive" use of investigating agencies against the media.

"The fact is that today, a large section of journalists in India finds itself working under the threat of reprisal. And it is imperative that the judiciary confronts power with a fundamental truth — that there is a constitution to which we are all answerable," the letter said.

Close media watchers said the timing of the raids was significant as police waited until the G20 summits had ended and the world's gaze had shifted from India.

"It also comes before crucial elections that are to take place at the state and federal levels. To 'take out' several articulate journalists and media persons and file anti-terror cases against them indicates how the Modi government fears independent journalism," Pamela Philipose, ombudsperson of The Wire told DW.

"NewsClick has never failed to call out the government on its repressive, pro-corporate, anti-poor policies and that is a major reason why it is being targeted today," said Philipose.

Author and columnist Arundhati Roy believes that India's mainstream media outlets had already become "compromised." The raids, according to Roy, were an attempt to teach the digital media a lesson for still calling truth to power.

"This is a message to intimidate them and send a message to others. It is a sign of desperation…a fishing expedition… and courts must step in," Roy told DW.

Crackdown in India on anti-Modi news website sparks protests

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

DW transparency note: India's NewsClick news outlet was a DW local media partner until December 2022, and was republishing DW content throughout the first half of 2023.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11