What is behind the synchronised Income Tax “survey” at NewsClick, Newslaundry?
The news portals issue statements detailing noon-midnight IT ‘survey’ conducted under Section 133A of the Income Tax Act
On Ganesh Chaturthi, when many offices across India were closed as celebrations began to revere the elephant-headed god who is said to be the remover of obstacles, teams of the Income Tax (IT) department were hard at work. Making the news were two IT raids, or ‘surveys’ as the department has termed their visit to the in south Delhi offices of the news portals NewsClick and Newslaundry.
By Karuna John
According to news reports, that confirmed the ‘surveys’ the IT visits were to investigate “allegations of tax evasion”, officials told the media that “the account books of the portals are being examined”. Soon after the news broke on social media, the media fraternity confirmed that they could not reach those inside those offices while the Income Tax officers were there. Later some employees shared on conditions of anonymity that the IT team reached the offices before noon and stayed there for hours. The employees in the office were reportedly told not to use their cell phones.
This is not the first such visit by a central agency for NewsClick, whose premises and the homes of its founders were raided by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in February. That raid, which lasted for hours on end, was a part of an investigation in a money laundering case. However, it is for the second time that Newslaundry has been ‘surveyed’ in this manner. Founder Abhinandan Sekhri issued a statement after the September 10 Income Tax visit was over.
He stated that the Income Tax department conducted the “survey” under section 133 A as per the document shown to him. They left around 12:40 A.M on September 11. Sekhri said he was told he cannot speak to his lawyer and was told to hand over his phone. “The team consisting of six or seven people was courteous and professional. I was told the law requires me to comply without seeking legal advice. They searched and looked through all computer devices at the premises. My personal mobile phone, laptop and a couple of office machines were taken control of and all the data on them downloaded by the IT team. In my understanding this (taking all data from my personal laptop and mobile phone) violates my fundamental right to privacy. No signed hash value of the data copied was provided to me,” said Sekhri.
Sekhri said this IT team had visited the NL office, first in June. “We had cooperated with them then too. We have nothing to hide and have done everything by the book and are not in any breach or violation of any law. We conduct our business honestly and with integrity. We have in the past given the IT authorities all documents related to our funding and accounts. We will cooperate in whatever way we are required to by law. We will also continue to practice public interest journalism which is why we exist. Our support comes from people who value public interest news and choose to subscribe to Newslaundry, not through government or corporate advertisements or PR exercises. We are proud of the model we chose and championed,” said Sekhri.
After ED raids, Newsclick gets IT ‘surveyed’
Newsclick Editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha also issued a statement on the Income Tax Department ‘Survey’ of its Office. This “survey” at the Newsclick office was also conducted from 12 noon to midnight, under Section 133A of the Income Tax Act. The IT team recorded Prabir Purkayastha’s statement, “impounded his phone; and took away documents – what they called “loose papers” from the premises. They also took email dumps of Prabir, editor Pranjal, and various administrative and financial accounts related to Newsclick. Around 30 employees and support staff of Newsclick were in the office throughout the “survey”. Their phones were temporarily seized, and they were not allowed to use their computers and work.”
This, recalled Purkayastha, was not the first time they have been “targeted by government agencies” adding that “the offices of Newsclick, as well as the residences of Prabir Purkayastha and other persons associated with us, were also raided earlier this year by the Enforcement Directorate. Newsclick has cooperated with the investigations by the Enforcement Directorate and Economic Offences Wing, and handed over all the documents they have asked for from time to time. Income Tax officials interrogated Prabir and Pranjal in June, and again, Newsclick provided the necessary documents.”
The news portal stated that the raid yesterday “appears to relate to the same false and unfounded allegations being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and the Economic Offences Wing, Delhi Police. We have these allegations challenged in the Courts” and added that the “investigations by various agencies, and these selective allegations, are attempts to stifle the independent journalism of media organisations – including Newsclick. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, a right central to our work.”
Editors Guild of India takes note
The Editors Guild of India has put on record that it is deeply disturbed about the Income Tax “surveys” at the offices NewsClick.in and Newslaundry.com. It stated that the seizures of mobiles etc. are “clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under section 133A of the Income Tax Act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists. It is also in violation of procedures laid out in the Information Technology Act, 2000.”
The Guild noted that “such indiscriminate seizure of journalists’ data” that could include sensitive information such as details of sources, stories under works and other journalistic data, was “in violation of free speech and freedom of press.”
The EGI noted that “both NewsClick and Newslaundry have been critical of policies and functioning of the Union Government. The dangerous trend of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media must stop as it undermines our constitutional democracy” and has demanded that “such investigations are conducted within the prescribed rules and that they don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media.”
Journalist Rana Ayyub also under the scanner
Independent Journalist Rana Ayyub is also under the scanner and has been booked in a case pertaining to donations. According to news reports, Ghaziabad Police have registered an FIR against Rana Ayyub, days after an online crowdfunding platform Ketto sent an email to donors who gave money to her campaigns. The Indian Express reported that Ketto stated they had been informed by the “Indian law enforcement agencies” that the funds were “not utilised for the purpose for which they were raised”. Ayyub did not respond to calls, messages and emails. The FIR was based on a complaint by one Vikas Sankrityayan a ‘Hindu IT Cell’ co-founder, who has accused her of illegally acquiring public money in the name of charity. He cited Ketto’s letter and also alleged that Ayyub was in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, for allegedly “receiving foreign money without any kind of approval certificate/registration from the government.”
Attack on media in Tripura
An investigation into the alleged attack on five media houses in Tripura’s capital Agartala including Pratibadi Kalam newspaper, has been sent to the Crime Branch department for a quick investigation, stated news reports. The attack reportedly followed the clashes between supporters of the opposition CPIM and ruling BJP at Udaipur in Gomati district, Bishalgarh in Sepahijala district, and in Hapania and Agartala’s Melarmath area in West Tripura district. According to news reports two CPIM party offices were torched, and three media offices – Pratibadi Kalam, CPM mouthpiece Daily Desher Katha, a local TV channel PB 24 were also attacked. An FIR had been filed on the complaint file by the newspaper’s editor Anal Roy Choudhury. He has alleged that the attack took place while the West Agartala Police station personnel remained “mute spectators”. After senior journalists including Agartala Press Club secretary Pranab Sarkar and Ajker Fariad editor Sanit Debroy reportedly met Inspector General – Law and Order, Arindam Nath, they were assured action.
Jaunpur BJP leader accused of breaking Dalit reporter’s legs
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yadavendra Pratap Singh has been accused of harassing and brutally assaulting Dalit reporter Santosh Kumar, reported The Caravan. Santosh Kumar, bureau chief for Jaunpur district of the Hindi news channel Bahujan India 24. The Caravan reported that he has been facing “casteist attacks and threats since March 2021.” The man accused of attacking him is a Thakur caste, who allegedly “targeted Santosh and his family as they are Dalit.” The reporter had “also published news reports regarding the Thakurs’ harassment and abuse of Dalits in the village.” According to the news report, an FIR had been registered t against Thakur in July, no action has been taken on it yet.
Santosh told the police that he and his family have been targeted since late March, just ahead of the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh. According to the news report Santosh’s village, Sawansa’s seat is reserved for women and his wife Reshma stood for the election as did Singh’s wife, Anamika. Singh reportedly demanded that the Dalit candidate withdraw her nomination. “They came and threatened my wife, and told me that if we fight the election, they will have us killed,” Santosh told the reporter, adding that they also faced caste-based abuse which continued after Singh’s wife won the polls.
Santosh recalled the day he was attacked when he was out for an errand, saying, “When we reached the Delupur bridge” —located near the village— “Yadavendra and 14 other people were present there along with him, of which I knew ten. Those people beat me so much that I fainted. They used casteist abuses and mother-sister profanities. They broke both my legs. I suffered several serious injuries—it was a life-threatening attack.” According to the Caravan, it was over twenty days after the attack, that Maharajganj police filed an FIR against Singh and 14 others, on July 17.
DUJ condemns raids and attacks on media
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) has condemned the ‘surveys’, raids and attacks on the media calling them “brazen attempts of the government to intimidate and browbeat the online media portals”. The DUJ also condemned the “select ransacking and torching of media offices by politically motivated mobs as seen recently in Tripura”. The DUJ President S.K.Pande and General Secretary Sujata Madhok issued a statement condemning the incidents and demanded “immediate action against those who ransacked premises, torched some offices and set several media vehicles on fire.” They have demanded that “immediate compensation for the loss of offices and equipment” be given and “prosecution of those who led these mob attacks that set an extremely dangerous precedent,” be ordered. The DUJ has also questioned the filing of an FIR in Uttar Pradesh against Rana Ayyub for her fundraising campaign and relief work during the pandemic.
Courtesy: Sabrang India
Note: This news piece was originally published in sabrangindia.in and use purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights objectives.