NewsClick: Marathon ED Raid, Malicious Leaks and Sarkari Smear Campaign on Independent Media

Rather than helping the government in its agenda, those who value media freedom have a responsibility to ensure that the smear campaign and coercion are resisted and not allowed to become the new norm.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED)’s raid on NewsClick.in began on the morning of February 9 and four days later is still continuing – with its editor-in-chief Prabir Prakayastha and his partner Githa Hariharan, aged 73 and 67 years old respectively, still confined to their home and held virtually incommunicado for over 96 hours

Prabir Purakayastha, is a renowned scientist, well-known for his integrity and courage. Anyone who knows him would have heard him speaking proudly: ‘I was once a guest of the former Prime Minister – Indira Gandhi’. Gyan Prakash’s Emergency Chronicles has a detailed account from the time when Purakayastha was mistaken as the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and ‘abducted’ by Indira Gandhi’s police.

Githa Hariharan is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1993 for her critically acclaimed short story collection, The Thousand Faces of Night.

Both Prabir and Githa have been spending their days and nights under round-the-clock surveillance, intimidation and strict confinement since February 9.

While I am writing this piece, two senior citizens are being hostage at their residence without them having access to any communication devices. As well-wishers, many of us are not able to get any information about their wellbeing. We know Prabir and Geetha are courageous people and they have fought many battles in their lives. Courage and truth are the best defence of fighters. They have both these weapons in their hands and they will win this battle for sure. However, it is important that the wider public learn what is going on.

ED misinformation

NewsClick’s editorial statement on February 10 extended the organisation’s full cooperation with the ED. The statement said, “NewsClick has cooperated with the officials and will continue to do so. If the ED and the government are truthful and follow the course of law, no wrong doing will be found and this unfortunate event will be closed. Newsclick has nothing to hide.”

Reposing its faith in the legal system, NewsClick said, “Truth shall prevail.” However, a pro-establishment website, OpIndia, along with some other web portals and corporate backed newspapers known for their pro-BJP stance, are circulating toxic stories about the ongoing raid on NewsClick in the hope of damning the organisation for  ‘money laundering’ – even before ED finished collecting documents in its raid.

When the raid is still ongoing, and no official statement has been issued by the ED, these websites are referring to ‘ED findings’. Clearly, the ED officials have found time during the raid to pass on anonymous and malicious leaks to right wing media outlets. The intention of the raid is to attempt to damage the credibility of NewsClick, which it has earned through decades of sincere journalism. This carefully calibrated feeding of distorted information amounting to a smear campaign is the reason why this raid has been initiated in the first place. Since all these leaks are unattributed, the  ED officials responsible for them can dodge responsibility while damaging the reputation of an independent media organisation.

Why target NewsClick?

Since it began operations in 2009 NewsClick has been in the forefront covering peoples’ movements. A few to count: Newsclick’s reports on the farmers’ movement in Rajasthan in 2017, the ‘Kisan Long March’ from Nasik to Mumbai in 2018 recording how “Farmers Show Resistance is Possible”. It provided space for detailed accounts exposing the nexus between the Narendra Modi led BJP government and well known crony capitalists.  A series of stories was done on the Rafale deal, raising tough questions. It brought out chronicles on every single crackdown by the state on a varied section of people including the working class, students, marginalized sections, the assault on the voices of dissent, the attack on democracy and secularism and so on.

In relation to the current farmers’ movement, while attempts are made to project the movement as the product of only one or two states, namely, Punjab and Haryana, a range of NewsClick reporters have busted the myth with stories from across India on how the movement has left ‘no corner of India untouched’. Besides, it not only countered the labeling of the farmers’ movement as ‘Khalistanis’ and Naxal, but also focused its reportage around the movement’s core demands, which kept disappearing amid the right-wing strategy of digression from the main issue. NewsClick’s outspoken nature of journalism, its honest documentation of the mass’ voice and ground reports on the ongoing farmers’ movement were naturally frustrating for the establishment.

Reporting the stories of the people with the objective of recording mass movements, large scale oppression on the working-class people and the marginalized sections, Newsclick widened its reach with serious and critical journalism by extensive coverage from the ground for over a decade. As opposed to the compromised media houses, NewsClick has built its  credibility by recording the voices of unheard.  In the age of ‘fake news’, in the world of Godi-media theatrics, NewsClick and other such alternative news portals stand out for their firm commitment to journalism.

State crackdown on independent journalism

The ED raid on NewsClick is one of several instances in the recent past where independent media organisations have been attacked. Journalists critical of the government are facing charges of sedition. Independent news portals are being hounded. Only recently, an FIR was filed against The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan and reporter Ismat Ara in connection to a tweet on the death of a farmer during the January 26 kisan tractor parade. Many other journalists were put in line of the attack with the slapping of FIRs.  Mandeep Punia of The Caravan magazine was  arrested on the allegation of ‘assaulting police officers and obstructing them’. Earlier, Prashant Kanojiya, another journalist, spent two months in prison for a tweet before he got bail. The Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as he was travelling to UP to cover the Hathras rape and murder. He has been in jail for four months. In 2017, the well-known editor Gauri Lankesh was murdered – which drove home the growing intolerance of dissent that has taken root in ‘New India’.

While a range of journalists and editors who are known for asking difficult questions to the ruling regime have been openly or surreptitiously targeted, journalists and media houses allied to the government enjoy impunity even when facing allegations of serious crimes. One has yet to hear of any of these media organisations being subjected to raids by Central agencies like the ED. Or to motivated leaks about an ongoing investigation.

On Friday, the NewsClick Editorial team released a statement which took note of the manner in which ED officials had enlisted the help of a section of the media to malign the website:

“We are, however, disturbed to note reports in various media outlets based on information allegedly provided by senior officials of the Enforcement Directorate. The selective leak of misleading facts is nothing but a malicious attempt to smear the image of Newsclick and discredit our journalism. It also constitutes a violation of the sanctity of the legal and investigative process.”

National and International Solidarity for NewsClick

While a vilification campaign is running against NewsClick, solidarity statements are also pouring in from across the globe. A number of unions, journalists, individuals and political parities have  condemned the politically motivated attack on the news portal. Among those who have issued statements is Britain’s National Union of Journalists.

The attack on NewClick cannot be seen in isolation. It is, rather, a larger question that should be our collective concern. If investigators can conduct an indefinite raid at an editor’s residence, keeping two senior citizens captive for days, without explaining what they are looking for, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Should other news organisations allow the official charge of ‘money laundering’ to dominate their headlines? Or should they ask why a news portal is being attacked with such resolve when it has been covering the historic farmers’ movement in India?

All journalists, editors and proprietors who value media freedom have a responsibility to ensure that this kind of coercion is resisted and is not allowed to become the new norm for how the government deals with independent  journalism. It is time to consolidate; for, only the strength of our solidarity can confront this abuse of power.

Satarupa Chakraborty, is a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research