Journalists See Efforts to Silence Dissent in India

From a Wall Street Journal story by Tripti Lahiri and Shan Li headlined “Terror Probe, Tax Raids: Journalists See Efforts to Silence Dissent in India”:

At around 6:30 a.m., dozens of police fanned out to an office and private homes in India’s capital earlier this month. They searched houses and seized books, laptops and phones. They interrogated people for hours.

When one of them subjected to a search pressed them for a warrant, he said a policeman whispered that the search didn’t require one—it was happening under a stringent antiterrorism law.

“I was shocked,” said Urmilesh, the subject of the search and a former executive editor of the TV channel of India’s upper house of Parliament. The 67-year-old, who uses just one name, watched dumbfounded as police rummaged through his books, journals and his daughter’s stuff.

Dozens of people were subjected to the searches. They were all journalists, like Urmilesh, or people associated with an Indian news website called NewsClick, known for articles and videos critical of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The site’s founder, Prabir Purkayastha, and its human-resources manager were arrested and are in custody.

Police are investigating allegations that NewsClick, founded in 2009, received funding from groups promoting Chinese propaganda, according to the police complaint and a lawyer for the company. NewsClick denies wrongdoing. “The intent of the Indian authorities is to stifle voices critical of government policies and actions,” NewsClick said.

The investigation into NewsClick is one of the latest actions taken by authorities in India that have led journalists and rights groups to criticize Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party for what they say is a more restrictive environment for speech and the press. Many say efforts to silence critics are intensifying ahead of state elections next month and national elections next year.

Last week, an official authorized the possible prosecution of Booker prizewinning novelist Arundhati Roy, a vocal critic of Modi’s government, on a police complaint from 2010. Some media outlets, including the BBC, have been investigated by Indian tax authorities after publishing reports that were critical of the government.

“Terrorism charges are a whole new dimension of threat to media freedoms,” said Sukumar Muralidharan, a former journalism professor based in the city of Gurgaon. “It’s inherently so much more serious and involves the possibility that these people will not come out of jail for years.”

The prime minister’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. At a press conference at the White House in June, Modi disputed that freedom of speech and the press are under threat in India. “Democracy is in our veins,” he said, adding that his government operates by the democratic values embedded in India’s constitution.

A spokesman for Modi’s party said that questions about law-enforcement actions would be more appropriately directed to the investigating agencies.

The criticism directed at Modi’s government has the potential to reverberate beyond India. The country has drawn close to the U.S. in recent years, in part to counter the rise of China. Both countries often speak of their shared values as democracies, but President Biden has faced pressure from rights groups to press Modi more publicly on human rights.

The NewsClick investigation came after a New York Times article in August detailed a nonprofit network that it said promoted Chinese propaganda by funding media businesses globally. The story said NewsClick was among the outlets that received financing.

The police complaint identified WorldWide Media Holdings as a nonprofit that contributed some funding to NewsClick. The news site acknowledged receiving some of its funding from the nonprofit but said it had disclosed its foreign funding to financial authorities as required by law. The news site denied that it published propaganda or received funding from Chinese entities.

A Journal review of NewsClick’s content suggests it published a range of articles, covering subjects from hunger in Afghanistan to criticisms of Modi policies to India’s space program. Some of it reflected left-leaning views and perspectives that aligned with Beijing’s political stances. The site says it focuses on coverage of “people’s movements and struggles across the country.”

The Times said it stands by its reporting and “nothing in our stories justifies the silencing of journalists by any government.”

The raids on NewsClick happened under a 50-year-old antiterror law called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which gives authorities broad powers and under which it is extremely difficult to obtain bail. In recent years, authorities have expanded its powers, for example, by allowing them to designate individuals as terrorists under the law.

Critics see the NewsClick investigation as a fresh example of a move by Modi’s government to target dissenting voices.

In February, Indian tax authorities carried out raids on BBC offices in India after the British broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Modi’s record on the treatment of Muslims in India. In 2021, tax raids were carried out against Hindi-language newspaper Dainik Bhaskar, whose coverage that year had been critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The income-tax department declined to comment on specific taxpayers but said its investigations are based on credible information and don’t target particular industries.

NewsClick has been critical of Modi over his efforts to overhaul the agricultural sector and other policies. Modi repealed the agricultural laws in 2021 after massive protests by farmers. The site’s journalists said that police questioned them on whether they had covered the protests and other demonstrations against the government.

The NewsClick investigation “is part of a clear pattern of intimidating the media and part of the current regime’s relationship with the media,” said Abhinandan Sekhri, the co-founder and chief executive of Indian news website Newslaundry, which has also faced an investigation over its tax compliance. Last year, a court dismissed some of the complaints brought by tax authorities against Newslaundry.

One of those who spoke at a recent protest in support of NewsClick was Roy, a well-known author and critic of the Modi government. At the protest, Roy said she expected arrests of journalists to increase ahead of next year’s elections.

Days later, a top Delhi official granted permission to police to prosecute her over a speech she made 13 years ago. In the speech, Roy told listeners about her response to an Indian journalist who was pressing her over her views on Kashmir, the disputed Muslim-majority region where Indian troops have often battled separatists. “Look, Kashmir has never been an integral part of India, however aggressively or however often you want to ask me that,” Roy recounted.

A Kashmiri Hindu activist had filed a complaint to the police at the time alleging that Roy had violated laws aimed at preventing sectarian violence. The laws require special permission to proceed with a prosecution, but that hadn’t previously been granted.

Police haven’t disclosed any charges against Roy. The allegations could include promoting enmity between different groups and making assertions prejudicial to national integration, according to an official at the office of the lieutenant governor of Delhi, who authorized the prosecution. Roy declined to comment.

Few publications remain that still run articles critical of Modi’s policies, said Muralidharan, the former professor, while those that do have come under increasing scrutiny from authorities in recent years.

In some instances, critics of the government say press independence has been eroded by new ownership of news outlets. Some journalists say they have seen a pro-government shift in the coverage of news channel NDTV since the Indian conglomerate Adani Group took control of the station last year. Adani Chairman Gautam Adani is widely seen as close to Modi and his party. The channel and the Adani Group didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Veteran journalists who worked at mainstream news outlets in the past have increasingly taken jobs at new, online publications that take an adversarial approach—and are often supported by subscriptions.

Urmilesh said he used to be a frequent guest on Hindi-language news channels as a commentator for elections, but ended up working as a contributor for NewsClick and other outlets after he found TV channels sharply amping up their nationalist rhetoric around 2019.

That year, after winning a second term, the government removed Kashmir’s special constitutional status that gave it more autonomy compared with other states. Authorities placed scores of local leaders there under house arrest and shut down the internet for more than a year. When Urmilesh would try to share his views on Kashmir as a guest on TV programs, anchors questioned his patriotism. It was humiliating, he recalled, and a marked change from the past.

“Journalists were never called ‘antinational,’” he said. “They were never called an agent of China or the U.S. or Pakistan. This kind of language was never used.”

Some journalists close to Modi’s party disagree that the Indian government is intolerant of dissent.

“There’s been absolutely no institutional hindrance to the expression of free opinion,” said columnist Swapan Dasgupta, a former member of the upper house of Parliament from the party. He said he believed some of the complaints are coming from liberals who were among the journalistic elite for a long time—and who now find themselves without access.

“There was hardly any space for people like me,” he said. “The change that has taken place is that there are far more journalistic channels that take a line that might be called pro-government right of center. This is inevitable when a major political force comes into being.”

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