Forty-six people were questioned, and digital devices and documents had been seized for examination as part of an investigation under an anti-terror law, Delhi police said in a short statement following the raid on Tuesday.
Those questioned include reporters, editors and contributors linked to NewsClick, an independent news website known for being fiercely critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Police said they had arrested the outlet’s founder and editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and a colleague, Amit Chakravarty, and an investigation is under way in connection with India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, an anti-terror law that critics describe as “draconian” and makes it nearly impossible to receive bail.
Newsclick on Wednesday described the raids as an “attempt to shut down and stifle independent and fearless voices that portray the story of the real India.”
“We strongly condemn these actions of a government that refuses to respect journalistic independence, and treats criticism as sedition or ‘anti-national’ propaganda,” it said in a statement posted on its website.
Newsclick said that it had not been given details of any charges, but that it had gathered information that the outlet was being accused of “purportedly carrying Chinese propaganda on its website.”
It added that it “does not propagate Chinese propaganda on its website” and “does not publish any news or information at the behest of any Chinese entity or authority.”
Some of those taken for questioning reported the raids on Twitter, now known as X, as they were taking place.
In one last post before her devices were taken, writer and activist Bhasha Singh wrote: “Finally last tweet from this phone. Delhi police seizure (sic) my phone.”
At 8.05 a.m. local time, journalist Abhisar Sharma said Delhi police were at his home and about to take his devices.
Speaking to reporters after leaving a police station in New Delhi, journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who is a consultant for NewsClick, said police asked him questions, including whether he had covered the 2020 Delhi riots — a series of communal clashes that left dozens dead — and the historic yearlong farmer’s protest movement against controversial agricultural laws.
The raids have shaken and angered India’s independent media, who say Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are tightening their grip on press freedom.
CNN has reached out to the BJP for comment.
Speaking at an event in Odisha on Tuesday, Minister of Information and Broadcast Anurag Thakur said he didn’t need to justify the action from the police.
“If anyone has committed anything wrong, agencies are free to carry out investigations against them under set guidelines,” he said.
Press freedom concerns
India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, is the world’s largest democracy and one of the largest media markets in the world.
But the Modi administration has been repeatedly accused of intimidating the press, stifling free speech, and censoring independent news organizations.
In the annual World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, India has dropped from 140th in 2014 — the year Modi came to power — to 161 out of 180 nations in this year’s list. That puts India below countries like Laos, the Philippines and neighboring Pakistan.
The Indian digital news foundation Digipub said it was “deeply concerned” by Tuesday’s raids.
“This has taken the government’s pattern of arbitrary and intimidatory behaviour to another level,” it said in a statement. “India has been in a downward spiral on press freedom and other rankings on civil liberties and human rights, and the Indian government’s war against the media is a blot on the world’s largest democracy.”
The Editor’s Guild of India said it was concerned that the raids were “yet another attempt to muzzle the media,” while urging the government to follow “due process” and “not create a general atmosphere of intimidation under the shadow of draconian laws.”
The Press Club of India said it stood in “solidarity with the journalists and demands the government to come out with details.”
Students, journalists and civil society groups have organized protests across Delhi on Wednesday to show solidarity with those questioned and arrested.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of ‘To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism’, said with a few exceptions, India’s “national-level legacy mainstream media are at an advanced stage of state capture – television much more than print.”
He said raids such as the one carried out on Tuesday “are necessary only for the few remaining outposts of old-fashioned critiquing of the government that was not so long ago considered the natural duty of the media.”
“Nowadays, it’s seen as unpatriotic to ‘spread negativity,’ so news has to be about the good things the government is doing, overcoming the obstructions of its detractors who don’t want it to succeed,” he told CNN “Since the government is unquestionably nationalistic, any critique of the government is what they call an ‘antinational’ act.”
Tuesday’s crackdown comes eight months after Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, after it aired a documentary critical of Modi’s role in deadly riots in 2002.
Offices of other independent outlets have been raided in the past, and international non-profit rights group Amnesty halted operations in 2020 after the “complete freezing” of its bank accounts by the Indian government.
— Sophie Jeong contributed to this article.