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Fifty detained, hundreds raided in India press freedom crackdown

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Picture: Peoples Dispatch/October 2023 – Journalists meet at the Press Club of India. Indian authorities carried out mass raids and detentions under the guise of the draconian UAPA on the morning of Tuesday, October 3, 2023, the writer says.

By Zoe Alexandra

The homes of over 100 journalists, contractors, and former employees associated with the progressive news outlets Newsclick and Peoples Dispatch, as well as Tricontinental Research Services were raided by Indian authorities in the early morning of October 3, 2023, in the capital New Delhi. Several raids were also carried out in the cities of Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon and Mumbai. According to local reports around 50 individuals were taken in to the police station for additional questioning.

Newsclick editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and administrator Amit Chakraborty have been arrested under the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). At least 500 police officers and intelligence agents participated in the operation.

Among those who faced raids, interrogation, and detention are renowned journalists Urmilesh, Abhisar Sharma, Aunindyo Chakraborty, Bhasha Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, comedian Sanjay Rajoura, and human rights activist and former political prisoner Teesta Setalvad.

Following his release Sharma said, “After a day-long interrogation by Delhi special cell, I am back home”. “Each and every question posed will be answered. Nothing to fear. And I will keep questioning people in power and particularly those who are afraid of simple questions. Not backing down at any cost.”

Democracy under attack

Police records show that the case against Newsclick under UAPA was registered on August 17, just over a week after a New York Times report was published which alleged that Newsclick, amongst other progressive news outlets, is part of a Chinese news propaganda network. The report sparked a political and media scandal within India, which saw right-wing news outlets running dozens of pieces lodging baseless accusations that the members of the outlets are Chinese propagandists. Members of parliament from the far-right ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as well as high-level authorities like Home Minister Amit Shah also made similar statements on the parliament floor and to media.

Today’s raids and mass repression have been widely condemned by progressive organisations, press associations, and opposition parties from across India as a grave attack on democracy, civil liberties, and human rights.

The Editors Guild of India released a statement expressing deep concern “about the raids at the residences of senior journalists on the morning of October 3, and the subsequent detention of many of those journalists.” The guild is urging the Indian government “to follow due process, and not to make draconian criminal laws as tools for press intimidation.”

The Delhi State Unit of All India Lawyers’ Union stated that they were “deeply concerned about the implications of these arrests for press freedom and the democratic values that our nation holds dear … Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any vibrant democracy. It is essential for journalists to be able to report independently on matters of public interest without fear of harassment or intimidation. Journalists play a crucial role in holding those in power accountable and in informing the public about important issues.”

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) said in a public statement, “This highly undemocratic, unjustified, repressive action has been ostensibly been carried to intimidate independent and fearless journalists and others who have been critical of the government policies. The BJP government has now chosen to use the draconian UAPA along with other sections of the IPC to carry out these latest raids and confiscate the electronic belongings, including laptops and mobiles of the concerned individuals.”

Witnesses report that the over 100 home raids lasted on average between four and 10 hours, and those interrogated faced a wide range of questions such as whether or not they had reported on the farmers protests in India, the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, India’s mismanagement of Covid-19, or anything considered “anti-government”.

In some cases, authorities ransacked people’s homes searching for material and one person reported that authorities threw his books to the floor and confiscated all titles by German philosopher Karl Marx. The cellphones and computers were seized from the majority of those who faced raids and were detained.

The office of Newsclick in New Delhi was sealed by police after it was raided.

The home of the Secretary General of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury was also raided. Following the raid he told media, “Police came to my residence because one of my companions who lives with me there, his son, works for Newsclick. The police came to question him. They took his laptop and phone. What are they investigating? Nobody knows. If this is an attempt to try and muzzle the media, the country must know the reason behind this.”

The repression today is just the latest act of harassment against Newsclick which was first raided in February 2021 by the Enforcement Directorate alleging economic fraud and money laundering. At the time, many activists had highlighted that the attack had occurred amid the growing farmers protests. Newsclick was one of the outlets providing consistent reporting on the struggle and had gained widespread notoriety for its on the ground reports from farmers’ protest camps. The country’s courts had granted the site protection from any “coercive measures” such as arrest and imprisonment by authorities in this case, but the latest UAPA case grants authorities special privileges to override those court protections.

The UAPA which was first established in 1967 has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as it has been used by the government of far-right BJP leader Narendra Modi to persecute human rights activists, journalists, and scholars in the country. The law gives the government special powers to bypass civil liberties, fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens such as the right to a fair trial. The amendment to UAPA in 2008 gives the government the power to designate individuals or groups as terrorist with no formal judicial process.

In a statement condemning the arrest of several anti-CAA protesters in 2020, Amnesty International wrote, “The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) is routinely used by the government to bypass human rights and stifle dissent. In 2018, the conviction rate under UAPA was 27 percent while 93 percent of the cases remained pending in the court.

“It is a mere tool of harassment that the government uses to harass, intimidate and imprison those who are critical of the government. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions under UAPA ensure that they are locked up for years altogether, creating a convenient setting for unlawful detention and torture.”

The Students Federation of India (SFI) has called upon its units across India to organise emergency protests in response to “the brutal crackdown on Indian media by the Modi government”.

Zoe Alexandra is a writer and the co-editor of Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published in Peoples Dispatch