The Editors Guild of India, the apex body of journalists, on Saturday said it was deeply disturbed about the Income Tax Department’s “survey” conducted at the Delhi offices of news websites NewsClick and Newslaundry.
In a separate statement, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) also condemned the “brazen attempts of the government to intimidate and browbeat online media portals, namely Newslaundry and Newsclick, through repeated raids on their premises.”
The Editor’s Guild condemned the cloning of Newslaundry co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri’s phone and personal laptop as well as office machines by the IT department without providing hash values. The IT team at NewsClick’s office also impounded the phone of the publication’s Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha and took away documents from the office premises. They also took email dumps of Purkayastha, editor Pranjal, and various administrative and financial accounts related to Newsclick.
“This was a clear intimidatory and blatant attack on their rights, and therefore press freedom,” the Guild said in its statement.
The “surveys”, officially conducted under Section 133A of the IT Act, lasted from 12 noon on September 10 to midnight September 11 at the offices of both the news publications.
It slammed the seizure of personal data and devices of the journalists and editors, as well as office documents and machines, saying that it was outside the purview of “survey”. “This is clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under Section 133A of the Income Tax act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists. It is also in violation of procedures laid out in the Information Technology Act, 2000,” the Guild said.
Recalling that such visits were made to the two publications’ offices earlier this year as well, the Guild underlined that both publications were critical of policies and functioning of the Union government.
“The Guild is deeply concerned that such indiscriminate seizure of journalists’ data, which could include sensitive information, such as the details of sources, stories under works and other journalistic data, is in violation of free speech and freedom of press,” it said.
The dangerous trend of government agencies “harassing and intimidating independent media” must stop because such actions undermine a constitutional democracy, the Guild said. It also referred to earlier IT raids at the offices of Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar after the newspapers’ critical coverage of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Demanding great care and sensitivity in the process of such investigations, the Guild said rights of journalists and media organisations should not be undermined. It also demanded the government to ensure that the investigations are conducted in accordance with rules and they do not “degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media.”
Stating that they would not be intimidated and continue to speak truth to power, NewsClick said, “These investigations by various agencies, and these selective allegations, are attempts to stifle the independent journalism of media organisations – including Newsclick. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, a right central to our work.”
Expressing similar sentiments, Sekhri said in a statement, “We have nothing to hide and have done everything by the book and are not in any breach or violation of any law.”
Earlier this year, Newslaundry’s office was visited by the IT Department while NewsClick’s office was raided by the Enforcement Directorate. As in this time, both publications had cooperated with the authorities back then as well.
In a statement, DUJ said: “The Delhi office of Newslaundry, known for its sharp, critical eye on all matters related to both the media and the government, was raided on 10.1.2021 by the Income Tax Department. Simultaneously a raid was conducted on the Delhi office of Newsclick.”
It said while the IT authorities claimed these were ‘surveys’ not raids, these lasted from morning to midnight and employees’ were deprived of their phones and not allowed to leave the premises.
The statement noted that Newsclick was earlier raided by the Enforcement Directorate in February 2021 when the raid went on 24/7 for one whole week in the house of its Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha. IT officials also interrogated Purkayastha and editor Pranjal in June. Newsclick has taken the authorities to court in connection with the allegations levelled at the organisation.
Listing more such attacks on the media groups or portals that are critical of the government, the statement recalled countrywide IT raids in the the offices of the leading Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, soon after its critical coverage of pandemic deaths in Uttar Pradesh.
“The DUJ condemns all such attempts to browbeat media establishments and individual journalists. We question the filing of an FIR in Uttar Pradesh against the award-winning journalist Rana Ayyub for her fundraising campaign and relief work during the pandemic”
The statement also condemned the “select ransacking and torching of media offices” in Tripura.
“The violent attacks by BJP activists on five media houses in Tripura, PB 24, Pratibadi Kalam, Kalmer Shakti, Daily Desherkatha and Duranta TV, as well as two CPM offices, on Sept.8 bodes ill for democracy, “ said the statement, demanding immediate action against those who ransacked premises, torched some offices and set several media vehicles on fire.”