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NewsClick: Govt Impunity Caused Seizure of as Many as 250 Devices, Paralysing Work of 90 Journalists

The ‘NewsClick’ case has forced attention on egregious government behaviour. Struggling to prove charges of financial irregularities for two years, the Delhi police latched onto a controversial ‘NYT’ news report to slap terror charges on two journalists.

New Delhi: The raids on journalists associated with NewsClick have resulted in the Delhi police’s Special Cell filing a case against only two members – founder-editor Prabir Purakayastha and HR head Amit Chakravarty – of the New Delhi-based news portal, but may have succeeded in paralysing the workflow of over 90 scribes.

The Special Cell seized around 250 electronic devices, including phones, hard disks, laptops and even passports, of over 90 journalists who were interrogated and whose homes were searched on October 3, 2023. 

A majority of them were either freelancers who were or had occasionally been contributing writers or did video shows at NewsClick.

Many of them were former employees who are currently employed in different organisations. Only a small number are still on the direct payroll of the website.

Speaking with The Wire, a senior NewsClick staffer said, “There are 90 people whose devices are taken away in the NewsClick case. A storage device with all the archival footage of NewsClick is also gone. Overall, about 250 devices belonging to 90 people are with the police. Many individuals have had up to three devices taken away. That is why the number of devices is so large.”

The staffer also said that none of the people whose devices were seized by the police were given the mandatory hash values of their electronic items, as prescribed by the courts.

They added that while some of them were given seizure memos, most of them were denied even that.

In the absence of these original devices, which are a storehouse of phone numbers and contact details for any working journalist, the journalists have been facing acute problems in continuing with their work according to their usual routines.

“Some are using second-hand laptops or phones, while some have borrowed working devices from their friends to carry on their work,” said another senior staffer at NewsClick

Journalists at NewsClick described their current ordeal as a blow to essential work for a digital journalism platform like theirs. 

“Our field notes have gone with the devices. It is an arduous task to compile information from years of fieldwork. We don’t expect the police to understand, but at least the courts should understand the significance of such field notes in the lives of journalists,” said one such freelancer who was at the receiving end of the Delhi police’s raids.  

Many of them were told by the police that their devices will be returned anywhere between two days to a month after due examination. 

“There was no specific pattern followed by the police regarding the assurance that they gave to journalists before taking their devices away. However, there has been no communication from the police about the possible date of return of the devices since October 3. As a result, we have moved the court to secure our devices,” said the senior staffer.

Also Read | NewsClick Case: If Modi Govt is Really Serious About ‘Terror Financing’, Why Hasn’t It Rung the US, China and FATF?

Recent experiences indicate that despite such immediate assurances, the police has been reluctant in returning the seized electronic devices. Recently, a Delhi court ordered the Delhi police to return the seized electronic devices owned by journalists at The Wire almost a year after the crime branch conducted raids at its office in a defamation case.

The police kept arguing for almost a year that it needed more time to examine the devices, only to eventually face disapproval by the court. 

NewsClick is facing allegations of financial fraud and accepting suspect Chinese funding.

The Enforcement Directorate initially raided its premises but struggled to concretely substantiate its charges in court.

However, the Special Cell too registered a UAPA case against the news portal, leading to the October 3 raids.

“Seizing devices indiscriminately functions as an instrument to blunt journalistic work. We could still bounce back soon after the raids derailed our work for a few days. But we suspect we may lose a lot of important work in the process,” said the staffer.

“The expensive NAS (network attached storage) device was also seized. That contained all our text and video archives, containing hours of video footage from the ground on different issues. In any media organisation, such archives are a treasure to be used at any appropriate time in the future. We, too, could have used it for our other stories but have no access to it. The wait seems indefinite,” they added.