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‘Intimidatory and Blatant Attack’: Editors Guild on IT ‘Survey’ at NewsClick, Newslaundry

The media body has termed the trend of the government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media as "dangerous", saying it undermines our constitutional democracy.

New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India (EGI) issued a statement on Saturday expressing concerns over the Income Tax “surveys” at the offices of news websites NewsClick and Newslaundry. The media body has termed the trend of the government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media as “dangerous”, saying it undermines our constitutional democracy.

The IT department officials claimed that the visits on September 10 were ‘surveys’ and not ‘raids’. In a ‘survey’, officials can check an organisation’s financial records but not confiscate any items. However, Newslaundry CEO and c0-founder Abhinandan Sekhri said in a statement on Saturday that the officials downloaded the data on his personal mobile phone, laptop and a couple of office machines.

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Highlighting this, the EGI said in its statement, “While they were officially labelled as ‘surveys’ by the IT officials, but as per the statement by Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of Newslaundry, this was a clear intimidatory and blatant attack on their rights, and therefore press freedom.”

“It’s learnt that the IT team made clones of Sekhri’s mobile and laptop, as well as some other office machines, and no hash value was given to them. This is clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under Section 133(A) of the Income Tax Act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists,” the Editors Guild said in its statement.

The Guild said it is ‘deeply concerned’ by the indiscriminate seize of journalists’ data, adding that it could include sensitive details such as details of sources, and could violate free speech and the freedom of the press.

“The dangerous trend of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media must stop as it undermines our constitutional democracy,” the EGI said, noting that in June, raids were also conducted on Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar.

Both NewsClick and Newslaundry have widely covered the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers’ protests and other issues which highlighted the Union government’s alleged failures in recent times.

This was the second visit by an IT team to Newslaundry’s office, the first being in June. the In case of NewsClick, the Enforcement Directorate had raided the offices and residences of their senior journalists and officials in February 2021.

“The Guild demands that great care and sensitivity be shown in all such investigations so as to not undermine the rights of journalists and media organisations. Further, to ensure that such investigations are conducted within the prescribed rules and that they don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media,” the statement concludes.

The full statement has been reproduced below.

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The Editors Guild of India is deeply disturbed about the Income Tax “surveys” at the offices of news websites NewsClick.in and Newslaundry.com.

On September 10, 2021, teams of IT officials visited the offices of the two organisations and conducted investigations through the day. While they were officially labelled as “surveys” by the IT officials, but as per the statement issued by Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of Newslaundry, this was a clear intimidatory and blatant attack on their rights, and therefore press freedom. It is learnt that the IT team made clones of Sekhri’s mobile and laptop, as well as some other office machines, and no hash value was given to them. This is clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under section 133A of the Income Tax Act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists. It is also in violation of procedures laid out in the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The Guild is deeply concerned that such indiscriminate seizure of journalists’ data, which could include sensitive information such as details of sources, stories under works and other journalistic data, is in violation of free speech and freedom of press.

This was the second visit by an Income Tax team at the office of Newslaundry, the earlier one being in June. In case of NewsClick, the Enforcement Directorate had conducted raids at their office as well as homes of their senior journalists and officials in February 2021. Both NewsClick and Newslaundry have been critical of policies and functioning of the Union Government.

The dangerous trend of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media must stop as it undermines our constitutional democracy. In July 2021, Income Tax raids were conducted at the offices of country’s leading newspaper Dainik Bhaskar, as well as a Lucknow based news channel, Bharat Samachar. These raids were conducted against the backdrop of some very critical coverage by both the news organisations on government’s handling of the pandemic.

The Guild demands that great care and sensitivity be shown in all such investigations so as to not undermine the rights of journalists and media organisations. Further, to ensure that such investigations are conducted within the prescribed rules and that they don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media.

Thanks and regards,

Seema Mustafa, president
Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary
Anant Nath, treasurer