New Delhi- In a powerful demonstration of solidarity, a coalition of journalist bodies and media houses in India has united against what they perceive as a brazen attack on press freedom and democratic voices. This collective response comes in the wake of recent events, most notably the raids on the offices and residences of journalists associated with the online news portal Newsclick by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police on October 3, 2023. The unprecedented crackdown has galvanized journalists and media professionals, who view it as a stark challenge to the principles of a free and vibrant press in India.
This united front represents a diverse spectrum of organizations and institutions dedicated to upholding the values of freedom of speech and expression, as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The coalition includes prominent names such as the Digipub News India Foundation, Press Club of India, Foundation for Media Professionals, and many others, who have joined forces to defend the fundamental role of journalism in a democratic society.
The Newsclick raids have sparked outrage and deep concerns within the journalistic community. The raids led to the arrest of Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha and HR employee Amit Chakraborty under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and involved the confiscation of journalists' mobile phones and computers without ensuring the integrity of their data—a violation of basic due process. The use of the UAPA in this context has particularly alarmed journalists, as it implies that journalism can be equated with acts of terrorism, a chilling notion with serious implications for media freedom.
In the midst of these developments, the court issued a notice to the Delhi Police in response to a petition filed by Prabir Purkayastha and Amit Chakraborty, who requested a copy of the FIR against Newsclick. The news portal had claimed that the police had carried out the raid without providing a copy of the FIR. Newsclick stated, "We have not been provided a copy of the FIR, or informed about the exact details of the crimes with which we have been accused." Purkayastha's lawyers informed the court that they needed a copy of the FIR to challenge it before the Delhi High Court. The court scheduled the case for a hearing on Thursday and agreed to provide a copy of the police remand application to Purkayastha's lawyers.
Demonstrations were held at Jantar Mantar and the Press Club of India in response to these actions. Journalists criticized the Delhi Police and the Central Government, describing their actions as unjust and repressive. They also called for the withdrawal of the case filed against the news portal.
Senior journalist Urmilesh expressed his opinion on the matter, stating that the actions against NewsClick and the journalists were politically motivated. He emphasized that the rule of law used to be governed by the Constitution but is now influenced by politics, particularly by a specific party, which he considered inappropriate.
Regarding the actions taken against independent media in the context of the 2024 general elections, Urmilesh expressed confidence in the public and society. He believed that these incidents were being taken seriously by various sections of society and that, in due course, farmers, laborers, Dalits, and backward classes would respond appropriately.
Activist Yogendra Yadav raised concerns over what he perceives as the government's near-complete control over mainstream media outlets. He suggests that the government's influence is particularly pronounced in the traditional mainstream media , leaving digital media as one of the few remaining independent voices. However, Yadav asserts that the government has now resorted to a strategy of intimidation and threats to exert control over digital media, citing the recent raids as a prime example of these measures. He contends that such actions are intended to instill fear and stifle the digital media's critical voices that have been speaking out against the government.
A coalition of 18 prominent press bodies in India jointly penned a letter to Chief Justice Chandrachud, expressing their concerns about the shrinking freedom of the media in the country. This collective includes organizations such as Digipub News India Foundation, Press Club of India, Foundation for Media Professionals, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Network of Women in Media, Free Speech Collective, Chandigarh Press Club, National Alliance of Journalists, Delhi Union of Journalists, Kerala Union of Working Journalists, Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists, Mumbai Press Club, Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, Press Association, Gauhati Press Club, Indian Journalists Union, Kolkata Press Club, and Working News Camermen’s Association.
The letter calls upon the Chief Justice, who has previously championed the role of the press in speaking truth to power and upholding democracy, to address the challenges currently faced by journalists in the country.
The letter references a recent incident on October 3, 2023, where the Special Cell of the Delhi Police conducted raids on the residences of 46 journalists, editors, writers, and professionals connected to the online news portal Newsclick. These raids resulted in the arrest of two individuals under various sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). It also involved the seizure of mobile phones and computers without ensuring the integrity of the data, a critical procedural violation.
The use of UAPA in this context is a matter of grave concern, as it implies that journalism can be treated as an act of terrorism, a precedent with worrisome historical parallels. The letter points out that various government agencies have previously misused their authority to target journalists with charges of sedition and terrorism, and this has been used as a form of harassment.
The letter acknowledges that journalists are not above the law but emphasizes that the intimidation of the media has a detrimental effect on the democratic fabric of society. It raises the alarm about subjecting journalists to criminal processes as a means to curb press freedom, echoing concerns expressed by Chief Justice Chandrachud himself.
The letter makes several specific requests for the Higher Judiciary to consider:
Framing norms to discourage the arbitrary seizure of journalists' phones and laptops, as this compromises their professional work and infringes on the protection of sources.
Evolving guidelines for the interrogation of journalists and seizures from them to ensure they are not conducted as fishing expeditions unrelated to actual offenses.
Establishing mechanisms for holding state agencies and individual officers accountable when they overstep the law or mislead courts with vague and open-ended investigations against journalists for their journalistic work.
The letter concludes by stressing the urgency of the situation and the need for the Higher Judiciary to intervene and put an end to the increasing repression of media by investigating agencies. It emphasizes that journalists are willing to cooperate with bona fide investigations but cannot accept ad hoc seizures and interrogations that are unacceptable in a democratic country.
The coalition of press bodies expresses its hope that the Chief Justice will consider their plea and intervene to protect the freedom of the press in India before it becomes too late. They assert their commitment to upholding democratic values and their readiness to cooperate with investigations while urging for a more balanced and accountable approach from law enforcement agencies.
In a strongly-worded press release, the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) has condemned the recent series of raids carried out by the Delhi Police special cell and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) across India
CASR's press release painted a concerning picture of the broader repression occurring across India. It cited various instances of similar crackdowns on activists, intellectuals, and organizations, suggesting a systematic campaign against dissent. Notably, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been implicated in several of these raids, with accusations of "Maoist links" being used as justification.
The press release pointed out that this crackdown extends to various states, with examples including:
In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the NIA conducted raids in 62 locations, leading to arrests and allegations of Maoist links.
In Jharkhand, numerous democratic rights organizations were labeled as "Maoist-linked" by the NIA.
In Odisha, activists involved in land struggles faced police abductions.
In Bihar, activists associated with the Kaimur Mukti Morcha were suppressed in their land struggle for Adivasi rights.
CASR underlined that these actions are part of a broader trend where the government, in preparation for the 2024 elections, uses security agencies to target democratic voices. The press release likened this situation to the previous onslaught on democratic movements during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, particularly highlighting the controversial Elgaar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case.
Demands- CASR made several demands:
Immediate cessation of raids conducted by the Delhi Police and the NIA across the country.
The immediate release of all political prisoners arrested as a result of these raids.
A call to all democratic organizations and activists to unite in a collective struggle against what CASR describes as "Brahmanical Hindutva fascism."