‘Crackdown on Freedom of Expression’: HRW Says IT Raids Are Targeting Critics

The rights organisation said authorities are using politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists and other critics.

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New Delhi: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday said raids by the Income Tax at the homes of journalists, human rights activists and news offices are part of the BJP’s “escalating crackdown on freedom of expression” since it came to power, accusing the government of using “politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists, and other critics”.

The international rights organisation commented on the IT Department’s raids at Harsh Mander’s home and office, searches at Sonu Sood’s house, and also the ‘surveys‘ at the offices of Newslaundry and NewsClick among other actions by Central agencies, saying these were intended to harass and intimidate critics.

“The Indian government’s raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a broader pattern of trying to silence all criticism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses weaken India’s core democratic institutions and break down fundamental freedoms.”

In a statement, HRW said that in the past, authorities have “brought politically motivated criminal cases, including under broadly worded terrorism and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students, and others” and that foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct have been used to outspoken groups.

On the IT searches at Mander’s house and office, HRW said the human rights activist has been “repeatedly targeted” because he is a “vocal critic of the BJP government’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities and works with victims of communal violence”.

HRW said that the Jammu and Kashmir police’s decision to confiscate the laptops of journalists Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta and Azhar Qadri is representative of the “increased harassment” that Kashmiri media persons face at the hands of the authorities.

The NGO also criticised the IT Department’s ‘surveys’ at the offices of Newslaundry and NewsClick, raids at Dainik Bhaskar, and the criminal case filed against Rana Ayyub by the Uttar Pradesh police.

Searches at actor Sonu Sood’s premises appear to be “politically motivated because the actor had received widespread praise from the general public, media, and opposition politicians across the country for his philanthropic work during the pandemic, especially to address the gaps created due to government’s lockdown policies and healthcare shortages”, HRW said.

The NGO pointed out that the UN high commissioner for human rights and various UN human rights experts have “repeatedly raised concerns” over the past few years about the “shrinking space for civil society groups” in India.

“By stifling fundamental freedoms at home, India is undercutting its influence as a world leader promoting human rights,” Ganguly said. “The government needs to change course and uphold the basic rights of its people.”