Even for a government that has shown itself to be intolerant of critical journalism, the actions by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime on the news website NewsClick smack of extreme vendetta and brazen harassment. The government has, thus far, disclosed no specific allegation on what exactly merited the arrest of the site’s Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha and another person under the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act among others. Reportedly, the website is under investigation for a “terror case with Chinese links”, but no article or content has been brought to light that allegedly suggests any link to “terror” or pro-Chinese propaganda. The news organisation has also said it has not been given a copy of the First Information Report or informed about the particulars of the offences it has been charged with. And yet, the journalists, contributors and employees associated with it have been subjected to raids, with many of their mobile phones and laptops seized. These actions against the website are not new — it has been under the scrutiny of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income-Tax Department since 2021, with seizures of electronic equipment, but no charge sheet was ever filed against it. The Delhi High Court, finding a prime facie case in favour of NewsClick, granted interim protection to Mr. Purkayastha from arrest and also deterred the ED from taking coercive action against the organisation. A lower court had dismissed a complaint filed by the Income-Tax department on a similar matter.
The trigger for the set of actions now is apparently an article in The New York Times that questioned the motives of an investor in NewsClick and alleged his proximity to the Chinese government, but it did not point to any specific article on the site that amounted to illegal propaganda against India. Government representatives first engaged in a systematic vilification and disinformation campaign against the site based on this article. Tuesday’s actions seem driven by an impulse to scapegoat a media outlet and to bring about, therefore, a chilling effect on critical journalism. No government can or should so brazenly target journalists solely based on suspicion about its funding and thereby undermine the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under the Constitution. Mr. Purkayastha was arrested and kept in jail during the Emergency in 1975 under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act, on trumped up charges, when he was a student-activist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Today, history seems to be repeating itself, but without even the fig leaf of a declared Emergency.