Police in India have raided the New Delhi offices of an independent news website and the homes of several journalists, writers, comedians, cartoonists and activists associated with it, as part of an investigation into alleged illegal overseas funding of the company.
Some of those targeted in the raids claimed on X, formerly Twitter, to have been detained for questioning by police, without being charged. They said their laptops, mobile phones and assorted documents had been taken away as part of the inquiries related to suspected money laundering by the NewsClick website.
Delhi police declined to comment on the raids, but media outlets and websites reported that several of those detained by police had “peripheral” or lapsed associations with NewsClick and were openly critical of prime minister Narendra Modi, his Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, or both.
These included stand-up comic Sanjay Rajaura who has produced satirical videos for NewsClick, activist and historian Sohail Hashmi and political economist Aunindyo Chakravarty, who have criticised the prime minister and BJP policies.
The Wire news website said the lawyers of those detained were not allowed to meet with their clients and quoted federal information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur as saying the agencies investigating wrongdoing by NewsClick were simply doing their job. “I don’t need to justify the raids,” Mr Thakur said.
Tuesday’s police raids followed a case registered against NewsClick in August, following a New York Times report alleging that the website, founded in 2009, had received funds from US billionaire and social activist Neville Roy Singham to disseminate “Chinese propaganda”.
The report claimed that Chicago-based Mr Singham, who made his fortune from developing custom software and from consulting services, used his global network of non-profit organisations to propagate “pro-Beijing beliefs”. The New York Times said Mr Singham’s network had financed NewsClick which “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points”.
NewsClick’s founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha, who has also been detained, has repeatedly denied these charges as well as all claims of money laundering, and said he would respond to them once the case came to court.
Meanwhile, the primary opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (India) condemned the police raids, claiming the government and its ideologically aligned Hindu organisations had resorted to reprisals against individual journalists who spoke the truth to power.
The India bloc said that earlier this year the BJP government had deployed tax officials to investigate the BBC over its operations in India, weeks after it had aired a documentary questioning Mr Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in western Gujarat state, when he was its chief minister.
Since Mr Modi assumed office in 2014 and was re-elected five years later, India had slipped 11 places in its press freedom index to 161 out of 180 countries recently surveyed by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF).
Using criteria such as media independence and transparency and legislative frameworks, the RSF report assessed that India’s press freedom standing was lower than that of Afghanistan, ranked at 152, Pakistan, graded at 150, and Somalia, which was ranked at 141.
Overseas non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Committee to Protect Journalists have recently claimed that Indian authorities are increasingly targeting journalists who criticise government policies and practices by prosecuting them under Colonial-era sedition statutes.
Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best known television reporters, recently said that being a journalist in India today had become a “solitary endeavour”. The media-businessman-politician nexus, he maintained, had spawned a lapdog press which equally mixed populism and pro-BJP propaganda. This, Mr Kumar added, included celebrating the arbitrary bulldozing of the homes of Muslim activists, who the BJP and their supporters disliked, or viciously trolling those who criticised Mr Modi or the BJP.