October 15, 2023

Brazen Attack on NewsClick

THE attack on NewsClick and the arrest of its founding editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and its human resources head, Amit Chakraborty, under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) is a blatant attempt to suppress this news portal, which has been an unabashed critic of the Modi government and its policies. 

The unprecedented action against NewsClick is also an ominous warning to the entire independent media that the Modi government will go to any extent to stifle its voice.  The arrest of Purkayastha and Chakraborty was preceded by the raids in the houses of 46 journalists, staff members and part-time employees of the website.  Mobile phones and laptops of all these persons were seized and they were subjected to repeated rounds of questioning at the office of the special cell of the Delhi police. 

The type of questions posed reveals the intent and motive of the Delhi police and their masters in the union home ministry.  The journalists were asked whether they had covered the anti-CAA agitation, the north-east Delhi communal violence and the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21.  Writing and making videos about these issues by the `suspects’ have brought them within the ambit of unlawful activities.  Journalism has been criminalised by the Delhi police. 

The NewsClick had been targeted in 2021 when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided the office of the website and the residence of its promoter and editor, Prabir Purkayastha. The ED accused them of money laundering and began proceedings against them. At that time itself, NewsClick had provided all the details about the funds invested in the company that owns it and how the funds from certain foundations and companies in the United States of America were done as per the law and with RBI clearance.  The NewsClick editor approached the Delhi High Court and got protection from the court, which ordered the ED not to proceed with any coercive action.

Unable to prove any illegality about the funding and investment process, the Modi government changed tack.  In this, it found a convenient peg in The New York Times article dated August 5, wherein the network of institutions and media enterprises funded by Neville Roy Singham, an American citizen and former owner of a tech company, was mapped out.  There is only a cursory reference to NewsClick in India and the fact that it was raided by the Indian authorities.  There is no mention of any wrong-doing. However, this became the signal for the BJP to launch a vicious attack against NewsClick and with the minister for information and broadcasting falsely alleging that the website had received funds from China.

Obviously, the Modi government decided to use the China bogey to target NewsClick and the Delhi police action has followed.

The FIR lodged against Prabir Purkayastha and others was finally handed over to the arrested accused only after the court ordered the police to do so.  The FIR has invoked various sections of the draconian UAPA and sections 153A and 120B of the IPC (promoting religious enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and criminal conspiracy respectively). 

The FIR is a litany of accusations and makes generalisations about how foreign funds were illegally infused into India by forces inimical to the country with the objective of creating disaffection against the government, disrupting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India etc.  It also talks of a conspiracy to show Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir as “not part of India”.  There is no material provided to establish any of these charges. Moreover, the FIR makes the outlandish charge that moves were made to prolong the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21 to disrupt “supplies and services essential to the life of the community”.  By this, the farmers’ agitation has been maligned and characterised as a disruptive activity. 

There is a curious charge against the accused of “conspiring to create a legal community network and campaign for and put up a spirited defence in legal cases against Chinese telecom companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo in return for benefits from these companies”. It further claims that, “these two Chinese firms incorporated thousands of shell companies in India in violation of PMLA/FEMA for illegally infusing foreign funds in India in furtherance of this conspiracy”.  Having made such a sweeping accusation, there is nothing shown to link the accused or NewsClick to these companies. 

All told, the FIR reveals the political intent of the Modi government to target NewsClick by smearing it with false accusations of funding from Chinese sources and linking it to fantastic charges of anti-national activities to justify the use of UAPA.

The viciousness of the attack on NewsClick also stems from the fact that it is a news website with a Left-wing orientation, which has provided solid coverage of farmers and working class movements.  Recently, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, had called for a relentless struggle against the `Left ecosystem’ in India. 

The attack on NewsClick is a brazen assault on the freedom of the press. But it is not only that, it is part of the growing authoritarian attacks on democracy and the rights of citizens.  Hence, it must be resisted with all vigour and determination. 

(October 11, 2023)