February 21, 2021

The Newsclick Story: Brazen Attempt to Silence People’s Voices


EARLY on February 8, 2021, dozens of officials from the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) descended upon eight locations in Delhi and started a simultaneous raid. All these locations were connected to the independent news website Newsclick. Included among these locations were the main office premises, the homes of its editor in chief Prabir Purkayastha, its editor Pranjal Pandey, well-known writer Geetha Hariharan, and homes of other administrative and technical personnel. All the people present in these locations were prevented from leaving, their phones were taken, and they were subjected to a barrage of questions, oral and written. The raid at the office continued for about 36 hours while at Purkayastha’s home the occupation went on for a shocking 113 hours or nearly five days. At other locations, the officials left at varying times on the first and second days, seizing personal laptops, phones, documents, etc. From the Newsclick office, which had different kinds of videography equipment and PCs and laptops, several items were seized, besides files and other documents. Similarly from Purkayastha’s home.

During the course of the occupation, not only were those present not allowed to go out, but they were permitted only a few very urgent calls with the phone put on speaker. Continuous questioning went on, in an obvious attempt to exhaust the people.

What was the purpose of this bizarre raid? The ED is a wing of the finance ministry, charged with looking into economic offences of various kinds. In the present raid they conveyed that they were investigating violations of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) which primarily deals with concealing, possessing or using money derived from criminal activity or thus passing such money off as untainted money. The ED officials appear to have concluded that Newsclick was using such illegitimate money. So, they were raiding the concerned persons to find out – that’s the official version, as reported in media.

Newsclick has said repeatedly in public statements that it has nothing to hide, it has not violated any law, it has complied with all regulatory provisions applicable to its activities and that they have responded to whatever queries were put to them adequately and truthfully.

However, it would be a travesty of truth if the real intent of this ‘investigation’ is not seen through all this smoke and mirrors arranged by the government.

The reality is that the present government led by Narendra Modi has become a smooth and blithely untroubled practitioner of the science of using government agencies to coerce any kind of criticism or opposition to its policies. Over the past six years of its turbulent rule, the Modi government has used all the agencies at its disposal to harass, coerce, trap, imprison and generally coerce individuals and organisations in order to not only suppress their voices but also to try and create an atmosphere of terror. Not only central investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) but even various wings of the government like the ED and the income tax department have been unscrupulously deployed to hound activists, protestors, writers, journalists, opposition politicians, dissidents, etc.

This raid on Newsclick needs to be seen in this grim context. It is yet another in a series of orchestrated events to silence critical voices.

Newsclick has been, for the past nearly 12 years, putting out text and video material that highlights struggles of people from all walks of life against injustice and exploitation. It has provided an unprecedented platform for the stories of manual scavengers, anganwadi workers, tribals fighting to save their small landholdings from robber barons, industrial workers in mines and factories, fisher folk’s struggle, gig workers, teachers and students, to name a few of the diverse sections who would otherwise remain invisible to the world. Newsclick has also recorded and documented the ongoing farmers’ struggle in great and vivid detail, with its videos and reports from protest sites getting millions of views. They provided a searing – and accurate – picture of the shocking conditions in which farmers have had to work in their fields, but it also brought out the resolve and anger that has brought them in this struggle against the three farm laws and for better assured prices.

It seems clear that the Modi government, which is cornered by this ever growing farmers’ protest, has taken recourse to shutting down voices like Newsclick in the foolish hope that this protest, or others for that matter, would simply go away if they stop their reporting. This is what the raid on Newsclick is all about.

The government has also, perhaps, come under pressure from corporate bigwigs who don’t want that their exploitative methods to be brought to light, for Newsclick has relentlessly been exposing precisely these. The website has been boldly exposing the unconscionable rise in inequality in India, the immense concentration of wealth in the hands of few corporate houses, and their deep nexus with government policies. This would particularly rankle with the corporate houses because otherwise, they have a stranglehold over mainstream media and enjoy complete silence from that quarter.

Another sordid but integral aspect of the government’s strategy was also on full display in the Newsclick case. Even as the raids were going on supposedly to find out wrongdoing, there were calibrated leaks of “information” to certain media houses. These reports, quoting unnamed sources in the ED itself spun out a story of funds being transferred from foreign entities to Newsclick, implying that some shady people were channeling money into India for nefarious purposes. Besides the fact that it is patently irregular – even illegal – to allege such things when there is no evidence put out, the ‘investigation’ is still in progress, and nobody is charged, it is also revealing that these leaks added to the chorus of vituperative reports that had started appearing in various sites openly aligned with the BJP/RSS. It was just too orchestrated to be a coincidence.

This public smear campaign – a sort of trial by media – has been a standard trick deployed by the Modi government in many cases, where they have no evidence but want to create an atmosphere of public approval for their actions. It has happened in the Bhima-Koregaon case too and earlier in the JNU attack case.

The Newsclick episode can be added to an ever growing list of the unbridled attack unleashed by the Modi government on freedom of expression in India. This is most evident in the attack on journalists and alternative media, but it extends far beyond that.

According to one exhaustive study, 135 journalists had been arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices since 2014 when the Modi government came to power. There were 19 such cases between 2010-14 when UPA-2 was in power. In 2020 alone, 60 such cases were reported. These are based on media reports, and many might have gone unreported.

In 2021, during the farmers’ struggle several more journalists have been charged with such cases including Siddharth Vardarajan of The Wire and Mandeep Punia of the Caravan.

Of the 154 cases reported between 2010 and 2020, 73 were in BJP ruled states and another 30 were in states ruled by BJP in alliance with other NDA partners. These cases were made out using a slew of laws including Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), Official Secrets Act (OSA), sedition, spreading communal disharmony, trespass, cheating, criminal conspiracy in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, obscenity under the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and others.

In this decade, 56 journalists have been put behind bars and have spent varying amounts of time in prison.

Just these data are enough to show the concerted drive against journalists and media launched under the aegis of the BJP led governments, whether at the centre or in states. They don’t however reveal the immense harassment and suffering that these journalists and others have had to undergo. And, note that this is just investigative stages of the law – they should be presumed not guilty till the courts decide. But under the Modi regime, the process itself is punishment.

Besides this, scores of journalists have been physically assaulted, stalked, trolled with vilest abuse which should have invoked strictest provisions of law. Very rarely have the police acted against those who have tortured and hounded journalists – mostly because these people belong to the ruling party or its affiliates.

Besides the direct attack on journalists, shutting down internet has become a standard practice with the government. According to a global internet shutdown tracking body, India is now one of the leading countries in the world for such shutdown. This body has recorded 409 instances of regional/local shutdowns in India since 2017, including seven in 2021 itself. This includes the world’s longest shutdown of 223 days in Jammu & Kashmir.

The raid on Newsclick, and the likely vindictive action that will continue afterwards irrespective of what the truth is, is but a symptom of the increasing dictatorial fangs of the Modi government. These have come into play because the government is increasingly getting isolated from the people because of its blatantly pro-corporate anti-people policies, its misuse of all kinds of dirty tricks and lies to mislead people and its opportunist hijacking of patriotic feelings to serve its very narrow, medieval outlook. As the ongoing struggle against the farm laws has shown, the government finds itself increasingly unable to meet the aspirations of people and thus takes recourse to its bag of dirty tricks. This is the way all unpopular rulers end up – trampling upon the rights of people and muzzling their voices just to cling on to power.

However, as scores of journalists have shown, and as Newsclick itself continues to show, you can shut down or incarcerate a few here or a few there, but in the end you will not be able to face the people.