NEW DELHI: Tuesday’s police raids on the homes of prominent journalists in India are an attempt by the government to “muzzle” free speech, campaigners have said.
The founder of news website NewsClick was arrested under an anti-terror law as part of an investigation into its funding.
Human rights campaigners said the move was a “ruthless crackdown” against independent journalists.
Ministers have insisted police are simply doing their job.
The co-ordinated raids at 30 locations on Tuesday were some of the largest and most extensive on India’s media in recent years.
Police later confirmed they had arrested NewsClick’s founder Prabir Purkayastha, as well as Amit Chakravarty, NewsClick’s head of human resources.
Officials are reportedly investigating allegations that NewsClick – an independent news and current affairs website known for being critical of the government – received illegal funds from China, which it denies.
The arrests and raids have been condemned by journalists, news organisations and human rights campaigners, who described it as another example of the government’s pattern of “arbitrary and intimidatory behaviour”.
On Wednesday, journalists and writers held a protest at a press club in Delhi.
One of those attending, human rights activist Yogendra Yadav, told the BBC it was “an attempt to muzzle voices”, adding: “There cannot be any doubt that is an out-and-out attack on the Indian media.”
Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, who attended Wednesday’s protest, said the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act had been amended to include intellectuals, writers and journalists under the definition of terrorists.
“They have confiscated the phones, the computers, they have charged them under this anti-terrorism act, collapsing the difference between terrorists and journalists.
“What they are doing here is ratcheting up their power before the coming elections in a very, very brazen way.”
Among those also questioned were journalists Abhisar Sharma, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Urmilesh, Bhasha Singh, popular satirist Sanjay Rajoura and historian Sohail Hashmi. Some were taken to police stations.
Searches were also carried out at the website’s office in Delhi, news agency ANI reported.
According to reports, the raids are in connection with a case registered against NewsClick in August after a New York Times report alleged that the website had received funds from an American millionaire to spread “Chinese propaganda”.
Historian Ramachandra Guha said the raids were “brutal, vicious and draconian”.
While he said it was early to speculate what was behind the move, Guha said several of NewsClick’s journalists were Hindi in a Hindi media landscape that is “subservient” to Mr Modi’s government.
He added that the website had been shining a spotlight on “crony capitalism”.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party came to power in 2014, a number of media outlets have been investigated for alleged financial impropriety, raising fears about press freedom in the world’s largest democracy.
Earlier this year, tax officials searched BBC offices in India, questioning staff about the organisation’s business operations in the country. The searches in Delhi and Mumbai had come weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary in the UK critical of Mr Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Tax officials also accused the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper of tax evasion in 2021 after its critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amnesty International said: “Journalism is not a crime. The NewsClick raids and the arrest of Prabir Purkayastha and Amit Chakravarty are the latest attempts by the Indian government to decimate independent and critical media.”