A Good Day for Independent Media, Says Newsclick After SC Ordered Release of Portal's Editor-in-Chief — Declaring His Arrest 'Illegal'

The court declared his arrest by the Delhi Police and subsequent remand “illegal”.
Prabir Purkayastha was arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell on October 3 last year.
Prabir Purkayastha was arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell on October 3 last year.File Photo/Hindustan Times

New Delhi: “A good day for independent media,“ wrote Newsclick on X (formerly Twitter), in its first reaction to the Supreme Court's order, which on May 15 declared the arrest and subsequent remand of the news portal's founder and editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, "illegal".

Purkayastha, 77, was detained on October 3 last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with a case involving alleged receipt of funds from China for dissemination of “anti-national propaganda”.

The apex court bench of justices BR Gavai and Sandeep Mehta accepted the defense submission that the grounds of arrest were not provided to the petitioner or his counsel in writing as mandated by Pankaj Bansal judgement, making the arrest foul. And the arrest was not made in accordance with the law, the remand order is also invalid.

The court ordered Purkayastha’s release from custody. The court ruled that although Purkayastha could have been freed without providing a surety, he would now be required to do so because a chargesheet had been filed in the case.

Reacting to the verdict, the portal tweeted, "Newsclick welcomes the Supreme Court verdict, quashing the illegal arrest of our Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha. This is a good day for independent media."

In the case of the Delhi police, serving the remand application satisfied the obligation to provide the cause of arrest in writing. However, the prosecution’s argument failed to convince the court.

The bench pronounced, as reported by Live Law, “There is no hesitation in the mind of the Court to reach to a conclusion that a copy of the remand application, in the purported exercise of the communication of the grounds of arrest in writing, was not provided to the accused-appellant or his counsel before the passing of the remand order dated 4th October, 2023, which vitiates the arrest and the subsequent remand of the appellant. As a result, the appellant is entitled to a direction for release from custody by applying the ration of the judgment rendered by this court in Pankaj Bansal.”

Arguments and counter arguments in the case were ended on April 30, and the division bench had reserved the order.

The Delhi Police was represented by Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, while Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal defended Purkayastha.

Purkayastha had petitioned the court to contest the validity of his arrest, arguing that the reasons for the arrest were not given to him in writing, as required by the ruling in Pankaj Bansal by the Supreme Court. The Delhi Police said that the remand application included the grounds for arrest.

The court, during the hearing, had noted the defense argument that the remand order was recorded as having been issued on October 4, 2023, at six in the morning. But Purkayastha's lawyer received a copy of the remand application considerably later.

The day the verdict was reserved, the court had questioned Delhi Police’s “hot haste” in producing Purkayastha before the magistrate at 6 am, even without notifying his lawyer. The court had also voiced surprise that Purkayastha’s lawyer had not received a copy of the remand application until after the remand order was issued.

Rapping the Delhi Police, the top court had asked it as to why Purkayastha was produced before the magistrate without informing his lawyer before doing so.

“Why didn’t you inform his lawyer in advance? You arrested him the previous day in the evening and you produced him at 6 am. You had an entire day to inform him. What was the hot haste to produce him at 6 am? You could have produced him at 10 am. Principles of natural justice required to produce him at 10 or 11 am and for his lawyer to be informed,” the bench had asked.

The Delhi Police had argued that the time (6 am) mentioned in the remand order was “incorrect” and that it was issued after serving the accused’s lawyer. This argument, however, failed to convince the court, which maintained that it would only proceed by the recorded time in judicial order.

The petitioner had challenged a Delhi High Court ruling that had upheld his arrest. In its decision today, the Supreme Court also overturned the Delhi High Court’s decision.

Amit Chakraborty, admin and human resource head at the news portal and a co-accused, had also petitioned the highest court to have his arrest overturned, but he was permitted to withdraw his plea after turning an approver for the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Delhi High Court pardoned him and recently ordered his release.

By this judgement, the Supreme Court has upheld the need for the state to follow procedures (which can serve as a safeguard) while it exercises its powers.

The Case at a Glance

On October 3, 2024, Purkayastha and Chakraborty were taken into custody following an early-morning raid by the Delhi Police Special Cell on the residences of around 80 journalists, contributors, freelancers and employees.

The raids came after accusations — made without supporting data — in a New York Times article that the Chinese government was funding the portal in order for it to "spread propaganda".

NewsClick described the 8,000-word chargesheet, which was submitted at the end of April, as "concocted" and "baseless". On May 31, a Delhi court will hear the case on framing of charges.

The remand order was passed on October 4, 2023, and the court pointed out that natural justice principles were broken by not giving Purkayastha or his attorney a copy of the remand application.

In the first information report (FIR) filed against the portal following the New York Times article, Purkayastha is accused of having "illegally" obtained foreign cash amounting to crores of rupees and using them with the aim of "disrupting the sovereignty, unity and security of India".

The anti-CAA demonstrations, the farmers' movement, the government's criticism of its handling of COVID-19 and the abrupt lockdown are only a few of the events that are classified as "disruptive". According to Newsclick and its backer, all of the funding was obtained legally.

The portal released a statement claiming that the chargesheet was "nothing more than a collection of the investigating officer's opinions masquerading as 'allegations'".

It said that the investigations conducted by the Delhi Police and other Central probing agencies were attempts to "target" its "independent journalism". It said the claims made by "protected witnesses" provide the foundation for these accusations, which must be substantiated in court. These claims are not backed by any supporting evidence.

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