The Delhi police have arrested the news website’s editor—after raiding 30 premises and questioning 46 employees and contributors. What’s unprecedented: the FIR invokes the stringent anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The trigger: a New York Times story on a global Chinese misinformation network.
Ok start with the arrests, please…
About NewsClick: The media site was founded in 2009 by Prabir Purkayastha who heads the Free Software Movement of India. He has long been an activist and was jailed during the Emergency. He is a member of the CPI(M), as are a number of NewsClick’s senior staff.
The raids: Early Tuesday morning, the Delhi police raided 30 locations including homes of journalists. Forty six people were questioned—and a number of them were taken to the police station. Laptops, phones and documents were seized. Many were not shown the FIR—and had no clue why they were being detained. The targets ranged from employees to part-time contributors—such as stand-up comic Sanjay Rajoura and historian Sohail Hashmi.
The interrogation: Journalists were repeatedly asked about the stories they covered:
The journalists were asked questions about the Delhi communal riots and the CAA agitation of 2019-20, the farmers' protest of 2020-21 and whether they used encrypted messaging applications such as Signal on their phones… “I was also asked if I have done any report regarding Khalistani activities. They asked if I received phone calls from Poland, Australia and the U.K.,” the journalist said, on condition of anonymity.
The men were questioned for 6-10 hours at the Special Cell office—while the women were questioned at their homes. Other than the two arrested, the others were released—but their devices have not been returned.
The arrests: Two people have been arrested—NewsClick Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkaystha and Human Resources head Amit Chakravarty.
The charges: The FIR was filed under UAPA Sections 13 (unlawful activities); 16 (terrorist act); 17 (raising funds for terrorist acts); 18 (conspiracy); 22 (C) (offences by companies, trusts). Also cited: IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy).
Section 16 deals with sentencing for a terrorist act—declaring it is “punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.” The “terrorist act” is actually defined in Section 15—which lists a litany of violent acts—using bombs, kidnapping, showing criminal force etc.
About UAPA: Here’s how this law works:
- UAPA allows any person who is charged with “unlawful activities” to be declared a “terrorist”—and arrested under those charges.
- Yes, the definition of what is unlawful or who is a terrorist is terrifyingly vague.
- And no—thanks to a 2019 Supreme Court ruling—the authorities can simply declare that they have evidence to make a prima facie case. The courts have limited authority to challenge that evidence.
- Evidence can be withheld for ‘national security’ purposes at the time of the arrest.
- And the person can be held for extended periods of time without a proper charge sheet or bail.
No media outlet has ever been charged under this act.
Big point to note: This is also why UAPA cases are thrown out once they are brought to trial. But by then, the person has spent months on end—punished for a non-existent crime. For example: JNU activist Umar Khalid who has been languishing in jail without bail or trial since September 2020.
Do we know what they’re accused of?
The police have not shared any details but “sources” told Indian Express that “the FIR has a reference to US businessman Neville Roy Singham and has flagged funding to the tune of Rs 80 crore.” Other “sources” told NDTV:
Sources in the force alleged the news portal received Rs 38 crore from entities linked to Chinese individuals and some of its funds were shared with activists Gautam Navlakha and Teesta Setalvad, who are accused in other cases.
Reminder: Navlakha was arrested in the notorious Elgar Parishad case—where academics, activists and poets were arrested under UAPA—and many have been languishing in jail without a trial since 2018. Setalvad is a Gujarat activist accused of fabricating documents that implicate the Modi-led state government in the 2002 Gujarat riots. She recently received bail from the Supreme Court—which also raised questions about the case.
The New York Times investigation: Back in August, A New York Times piece revealed that many left-leaning NGOs and publications around the world are linked to a Chinese propaganda machine run by Beijing. And at the centre of it all is a wealthy tech bro named Neville Roy Singham—“who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes.” Basically, he funnels all the money to these organisations—which may or may not know the identity of their true benefactor. In India, NYT named NewsClick:
In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Mr. Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points. “China’s history continues to inspire the working classes,” one video said.
The Times’ piece then goes on to make sweeping statements that suggest a well-coordinated network:
These groups operate in coordination. They have cross-posted articles and shared one another’s content on social media hundreds of times. Many share staff members and office space. They organise events together and interview one another’s representatives without disclosing their ties.
Point to note: The Times offers slim evidence of this network except in a few cases in Africa—and certainly not in the case of NewsClick—which gets a one-line mention. And it ignores NewsClick’s extensive coverage of a variety of issues—outside of China. To be clear: like many liberal news sites, it has been a staunch critic of the government and the BJP—especially on issues such as farmer protests etc—which were raised with journalists.
The immediate fallout: After the piece was published, Information & Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur gleefully cited the Times—claiming that China, Congress and NewsClick are part of one “anti-India umbilical cord.” BJP MP said in Parliament:
NewsClick is anti-national… It is a tukde tukde gang that wants to break India… NewsClick is headed by Purakaystha and he is also the owner… Where did all the money come from, how he gave it to Naxalites, Maoists… Sharma, Rohini Singh and Swati Chaturvedi just to create an anti-India atmosphere… the Chinese have been giving money.
As for NewsClick: When asked about the NYT piece, Purkayastha said: “These are not new allegations. They have been made in the past. We will respond to them in the appropriate forum, i.e., the court, as the matter is sub-judice.”
About that Chinese funding: This isn’t the first time that NewsClick has been targeted for allegedly receiving money from foreign sources. In February 2021, Enforcement Directorate officials raided the publication’s Delhi office, Purkayastha’s home, and those of a senior editor, HR head and columnist. At the time ED officials said:
The searches have been carried out under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, based on an FIR registered by the Delhi Police a few months ago. We have so far found evidence showing receipt of about Rs 30 crore from abroad. The funds also came from a U.S.-based company, which had already been liquidated. Another U.S. firm, said to be a shareholder, is under the scanner.
But there was no mention of a China angle at the time.
Ok, so what happens now?
We don’t really know. The government has not responded to questions. Anurag Thakur merely said: “I don’t need to justify the raids. If someone has done something wrong, probe agencies work on it.”
The pushback: The Editor’s Guild has been cautious—saying merely:
The investigation of specific offences must not create a general atmosphere of intimidation under the shadow of draconian laws, or impinge on the freedom of expression and the raising of dissenting and critical voices.
And it has asked the government to reveal details of the charges. The Press Club of India has taken a stronger stance—and plans to write to the Chief Justice of India—demanding his intervention.
As for the US: Asked about the arrests, the State Department offered this diplomatic line: “The US government strongly supports the robust role of the media globally, including social media, in a vibrant and free democracy.”
The bottomline: Soon after the raids, BJP’s Twitter handle put out this handy Venn diagram:
It’s going to be a long and nasty election season.
The Quint has the best overview of the raids—while NDTV and Indian Express have quotes from police sources. Use the splainer gift link to check out the New York Times investigation into the global Chinese network. For more on the previous tax raid on NewsClick, read our Big Story.