Washington, D.C., July 6, 2021 — Indian authorities must cease their legal harassment of the news website Newsclick and its editors, and refrain from investigating members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On June 30, officials from the national Income Tax Department visited the offices of Newsclick in New Delhi and questioned its editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and another editor, Pranjal, who uses one name, for five hours each, according to a report by the local newspaper The Telegraph and an editor with the outlet, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of official reprisal.
The tax officials questioned both editors in relation to a money laundering investigation, according to those sources. Delhi police previously opened a separate money laundering investigation into the outlet in August 2020, according to a police document reviewed by CPJ, and the Finance Ministry’s Enforcement Directorate is pursuing a third investigation into the outlet, also for alleged money laundering, according to that editor and The Indian Express.
During questioning, both editors were given summons from the Economic Offenses Wing of the Delhi police, ordering Purkayastha to attend questioning tomorrow and Pranjal on July 9, the editor said, adding that both journalists plan to comply.
A second Newsclick editor, who also spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal by authorities, said they believed that authorities had opened the investigations in retaliation for the outlet’s coverage of the nationwide farmers’ protests last year.
“The ongoing investigations into Newsclick and its editors by three government agencies are a blatant intimidation tactic aimed at chilling critical reporting,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities should drop the investigations, cease their harassment of Newsclick and its employees, and allow them to report freely.”
On June 23, the Finance Ministry’s Enforcement Directorate announced that it would provide the defendants with the specific allegations against Purkayastha and PPK Newsclick Studio Private Limited, the website’s parent company, according to The Indian Express. The ministry had not provided that information as of today, the first editor told CPJ.
During the June 30 questioning, officials ordered Newsclick to submit a number of tax documents from the last four years by July 5, that editor told CPJ, adding that the outlet complied and sent some documents yesterday, and received permission from the Income Tax Department to send more by July 8.
Umakant Lakhera, president of the Press Club of India, told CPJ via messaging app that the organization supported Newsclick, which he said had “paid for its critical reporting” with the investigations.
PPK Newsclick Studio Private Limited, Purkayastha, and Pranjal have each filed requests to the Delhi High Court to drop the police investigation, the first editor told CPJ. Purkayastha and Pranjal have also filed for anticipatory bail and interim protection from police action, that editor said.
The Delhi High Court previously granted such protections to Newsclick’s parent company and Purkayastha in relation to the investigation by the Enforcement Directorate, according to The Indian Express, which said that the court yesterday extended those protections until July 29.
Previously, in February, the Enforcement Directorate raided Newsclick’s office in New Delhi, as well as the homes of Purkayastha, one other editor, and two members of its management, as CPJ documented at the time. Authorities seized the outlet’s equipment during those raids, including the communication devices of its directors and senior management, according to news reports.
In a statement issued in February, Newsclick’s editorial team wrote that the outlet had “nothing to hide” and was cooperating with authorities. The statement also accused authorities of attempting to “cow down an independent and progressive voice through a vindictive course of action.”
CPJ emailed the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate for comment but did not receive a response. Chinmoy Biswal, a Delhi police spokesperson, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via messaging app.