In the last few years, there have been multiple instances of central agencies raiding different news organisations across the country.
In the first week of this month, global media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) named Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in its list of 37 heads of states who have astronomically suppressed Press Freedom in their respective countries. The RSF labelled these leaders as “press freedom predators”.
“After becoming Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, he used this western state as a laboratory for the news and information control methods he deployed after being elected as India’s prime minister in 2014,” the RSF said on PM Modi’s inclusion in the list.
In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index produced by the RSF, the French NGO had placed India at 142nd rank out of 180 countries. This despite the fact that for a year, under directions from the Cabinet Secretary, an Index Monitoring Cell worked to improve the world rankings, including a meeting between Ambassador to France with the RSF officials to lobby for a change in the ranking in the index compiled by them.
India, despite having the right to free speech and expression, has a very diverse set of laws that could be used by the establishment to target the dissenters or those who oppose the ruling dispensation. That has, in recent decades, made frequent dents in the press freedom journalists enjoy in the country.
It is not new for journalists in India to face action from various governments for reporting anti-establishment stories. However, in the last few years, the Modi government has taken this attack on press a notch above.
In the last few years, there have been multiple instances of central agencies raiding different news organisations across the country. There have hardly been any convictions in these cases. The only common link between these news channels is that they have been critical of the Modi government in their reporting. These channels raided by the central agencies vary from legacy media houses, newspapers to digital portals.
Thursday morning, a news broke about Income Tax raids at offices of one of the country’s largest media house- Dainik Bhaskar group. The Income Tax department launched extensive search operations and raids at multiple locations, including in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. According to sources, the raids/search operations by the I-T teams are under way at the group’s office in Delhi, Bhopal and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Jaipur in Rajasthan and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Mumbai in Maharashtra and a few other locations also.
Dainik Bhaskar, one of the largest circulating Hindi daily in the country, has been critical of the government’s handling of the second Covid wave. The newspaper extensively reported about the mass cremations that took place during the health crisis in the country, as well as the floating dead bodies on the bank of river Ganges. Bhaskar, in its reportage, also highlighted the gap between reported death toll by the governments and actual fatalities reported on the ground.
Recently, when the Pegasus spying story broke, Bhaskar had reported about the similar allegations raised against PM Modi and his number two Amit Shau during their rule in western state of Gujarat. However, the story was taken down by the publication shortly after it was shared widely on social media.
Dainik Bhaskar reports Modi’s habitual snooping. Income Tax raids them pic.twitter.com/VyaTsXGqT1
— Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) July 22, 2021
Co-incidentally, the IT raids come just two days after the aforementioned story by the Bhaskar.
In it’s response to the raids, the Bhaskar group has stated that “scared of its coverage of floating dead bodies in the river Ganges during the pandemic, the government launched raids on the Bhaskar group.”
At the time when raids were being conducted on the offices of Dainik Bhaskar on Thursday, it was revealed that separate searches were on at premises owned by Lucknow-based Bharat Samachar television channel and its editor, Brajesh Misra.
According to an update shared by Bharat Samachar on their Twitter handle, raids have been conducted at the media organisation’s office. The raids began early on Thursday morning and were continuing till the time of filing this report.
Bharat Samachar mainly focuses on the coverage of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, which is scheduled to go for assembly polls next year. The news channel has been aggressive in its reporting against the incumbent Yogi Adityanath government. The channel had covered the widespread violence in the state during the recent Panchayat block chief polls. It had also highlighted the case of alleged land scam by the members of Ram Mandir trust in Ayodhya.
Responding to the raids, Bharat Samachar wrote on its Twitter handle: “We will stand by the truth. The people are watching.”
हम सच के साथ खड़े रहेंगे…. जनता सब देख रही हैं
🛑'तुम चाहे जितना दबाओगे आवाज'
'हम उतनी ही जोर से कहते रहेंगे सच'
'हम न तो पहले डरे थे और न अब डरेंगे'
सच के साथ पहले भी थे और अभी भी हैं
'तुम कुछ भी करो लेकिन सच ही कहेंगे'🛑 pic.twitter.com/XgBMMaEQus
— भारत समाचार (@bstvlive) July 22, 2021
“You can press as much as you want, we will keep telling the truth as loudly. We were neither scared before nor will we be afraid now. We were with the truth before and still are. Anything you do but we will say the truth,” the channel said.
On February 9, the Enforcement Directorate launched simultaneous raids at eight locations associated with the digital news portal Newsclick. This included the website’s office in South Delhi’s Said-ul-Ajab locality, and the residences of the editor-in-chief and founder Prabir Purkayastha, another editor, Pranjal Pandey and five staff members from the editorial and accounts teams. The raids at six staff members’ residences wrapped up on the same night, while the raid at the office continued for over 38 hours and ended on the night of 10 February. But the raid at Purkayastha’s house lasted 113 hours and ended at 1.30 am on 14 February.
Before the raids on their premises, Newsclick had covered the farmers’ protests extensively with several of their reporters on the ground, at the protests and the mahapanchayats. Newsclick has special interest in covering people’s issues and movements, which it has done during the Modi government’s rule as well.
However, the investigation in their funding is still on, and the recent reports suggested that the investigation has turned spotlight on their financial dealings with a businessman of Sri Lankan-Cuban descent. Sources in the agency, who have been mapping the flow of funds to the media outlet, alleged that the businessman was associated with the propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
In a statement released by NewsClick after the raids, the platform had said: “Truth shall prevail. We have full faith in the legal system.”
HW News Network
In September last year, offices of Mumbai-based HW News Network were raided by Income Tax officials. HW News Network is a digital news platform that focuses on stories based on contemporary politics and economy of the country.
The digital portal runs popular Hindi news shows by journalists like Vinod Dua and Abhisar Sharma, where they have been commentating on various issues of national importance. Managing editor of HW News Network- Sujit Nair- also runs a show called ‘Editorial’, where he comments on the recent political and other developments in the country.
— HW News English (@HWNewsEnglish) September 18, 2020
Before the IT raids, HW News had extensively focused on the issue of Punjab and Maharashtra co-operative (PMC) bank, the RBI’s role in causing sufferings to the bank customers, and need of an economic stimulus for the country struggling due to the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Responding to the raids, HW News Network had said: “We still believe that the Reserve Bank of India was responsible for the debacle of Punjab and Maharashtra Bank. We still believe that India needs economic stimuli. We still believe India belongs to Indians. Our biggest strength is your support. And till such time, we have your support, our beliefs will not change.”
The Quint and The News Minute
In October 2018, the Income Tax department arrived at the Delhi home of businessman Raghav Bahl, as well as the Noida offices of the Quint, the news website that he has founded. Soon after, officers turned up at Bangalore premises of The News Minute, a news website in which Bahl has made an investment, as well as the Mumbai office of Quintype, a technology company that he founded.
The Quint and The News Minute have been critical of the Modi government in their reporting. The raids prompted statements of concern from Bahl, as well as a number of others, including the Editors Guild of India, Amnesty and the Committee for Protection of Journalists.
The raids even earned a response from the Congress, with president Rahul Gandhi telling the Quint, “They [BJP] will raid, harass, attack and suppress. That’s their agenda… The government is trying to suppress the media.”
— Congress (@INCIndia) October 11, 2018
In 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had raided the properties of co-chairpersons of India’s leading news channel NDTV for allegedly causing multi-million dollar losses to a private bank.
NDTV is one of the oldest news channels in the country that has been critical of the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The raids on properties of NDTV officials came shortly after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had imposed a day-long ban on the Hindi-language channel the same year. The ban was imposed for allegedly violating coverage rules during the army’s counter-terrorism operation.
The channel rejected the accusations and described the latest raids as an assault on free speech in India.
In a statement posted on its official website, NDTV said: “This morning, the CBI stepped up the concerted harassment of NDTV and its promoters based on the same old endless false accusations.
“NDTV and its promoters will fight tirelessly against this witch-hunt by multiple agencies. We will not succumb to these attempts to blatantly undermine democracy and free speech in India.
“We have one message to those who are trying to destroy the institutions of India and everything it stands for: we will fight for our country and overcome these forces.”
A declining trend in Press Freedom
After the recent revelations in the Pegasus Project, a series of stories done by a consortium of 17 media houses across the world, the Indian government has been at the centre of backlash. The investigation has also revealed that around 40 journalists in India were on a possible target list of an Israeli spyware used by government agencies to track terrorist activities and threats to national security.
Though the Indian government has not clearly accepted or denied the accusations of spying on the journalists, it has said that there was no “unauthorised” interception.
Earlier in 2019, WhatsApp had informed the Indian government in September that 121 Indian users were targeted by the Israeli spyware Pegasus, but IT ministry had contended that the information received from the messaging app earlier was “inadequate and incomplete”.
The way forward
The Modi government, currently, is scrambling to shrug off the criticism it’s facing for Covid-19 handling during the second wave. It has also been faced with adamant farmers protesting against the new farm laws brought in by the government. The rising inflation has added more fuel to the fire. At such time, instead of trying to threaten the press for reporting the stories that concern the common man, the government needs to fix its prioritises and work as ‘welfare state’.
Press freedom is the basic tenet of a vibrant democracy, and raiding news organisations for their pro-people reportage is not helping anyone for now, especially the government.
The Modi government, instead of trying to ignore the criticism, and supressing the facts, should face them with open heart and correct its wrongdoings if it wants to fix its dented image. It is, perhaps, the only way forward.