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New Delhi: A Congress MP has written to the Union finance minister alleging that there is strong public perception that the recent raids on two news outlets’ offices were intended to ‘punish’ them for their coverage of mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Income Tax Department had last week raided several premises of the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper and the Uttar Pradesh-based television channel Bharat Samachar. The department maintained that the raids were not related to news reports or editorial decisions but only looked into the outlets’ financial accounts.
Senior advocate and Rajya Sabha member Vivek Tankha, in a letter to Nirmala Sitharaman, wrote that “there is no denying that the publication in question was critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It was stressing for more transparency while trying to hold accountable all those in power across political spectrum.”
‘IT department violated rule of law, issued sensational press releases’
Tankha claimed that the IT department issued sensational press releases while the searches were on.
“The basic tenets of rule of law require adherence to norms and prescriptions in vogue, lest our constitutional democratic values are rendered otiose and it turns into a power-centred rule of men,” he said.
The MP pointed out that circulars by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the search and seizure manual have it that “such actions of issuing information pertaining to search operation to press are not only unwarranted, but also highly illegal”.
The CBDT had claimed that “fictitious transactions” of Rs 2,200 crore were detected in raids against the Dainik Bhaskar media group.
Following the raids, several media groups and politicians had criticised the department’s action terming it motivated.
Bhaskar editor had written about corpses in Ganga, talks of ad cut by government
The Editors Guild of India had noted that the raids appeared to be politically motivated. It issued a statement saying, “In a recent webinar hosted by the Editors Guild, Om Gaur, national editor of Dainik Bhaskar had stated that their advertising from government departments had been cut after the recent critical coverage of state authorities.”
It was also pointed out Gaur had also written an op-ed in The New York Times, headlined ‘The Ganges Is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie’.
The EGI had also noted with concern how “Bharat Samachar, too, has been subjected to raids by the tax authorities. It is one of the few channels in Uttar Pradesh that has been asking difficult questions from the state government with respect to COVID-19 management”.
Tankha, in his letter, also insisted, “There can be no democracy without freedom of press” and claimed that “today the nation stands convinced that the action against Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar under Section 132 of the Income Tax Act smacks of malafides.”
He also said CBDT has played to the gallery. “By doing this media trial, and making onslaughts on the fourth pillar of democracy, what message your officials are giving to the masses?” he asked.
He asked if the message was, “That to hold those who govern to any accountability is scorned at and will be met with vengeance?.”
“If anyone critical of the governments will be met with a media trial and sensationalisation, then don’t these actions reduce the whole idea of ‘of, by and for’ the people to a nullity?” he said, urging Sitharaman to “give due attention and confer required seriousness on the implications of what seems to be done unmindfully or by design by a handful of officials.”
Opposition leaders’ criticism
Several other politicians had also questioned the government action.
Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had termed the raids a “vindictive act that aims to suppress voices that bring out the truth” and a “grave violation that undermines the very principles of democracy”.
Rajasthan chief minister and Congress leader Ashok Gehlot had also described these as a “brazen attempt to suppress the voice of media”. He said that “Modi government cannot tolerate even an iota of its criticism”.
Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had also criticised the raids saying, “The message is clear – whoever speaks against the BJP government will not be spared. This is a dangerous mentality. All should raise their voice against this. These raids should be stopped immediately and the media should be allowed to function freely.”
Incidentally, the raid on Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar comes within months of the Enforcement Directorate conducting raids on the offices of NewsClick. In that case too, while the raid was still on, the ED had claimed that it was probing a money laundering case and on the presence of “foreign remittances allegedly totalling Rs 30.51 crores”.
At that time, various media groups and DIGIPUB News India Foundation, formed by digital media organisations and freelancers, had criticised the raids. The Foundation, of which NewsClick editor Prabir Purkayastha is the vice chairperson, had issued a statement saying: “Such use of state agencies to intimidate journalists and suppress adversarial journalism is detrimental to not only the freedom of the press, but also the very idea of democratic accountability. Everyone emerges poorer in the long run.”
The Editors Guild too had criticised the raid while pointing out how the website was at the forefront of reporting on the farmers agitation, the anti-CAA protests, and had been critical of various government policies and of a few powerful corporate houses.