India: Drop charges and release NewsClick workers and end harassment of media

Prabir Purkayastha

CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, calls on the Indian authorities to end the crackdown against NewsClick and release its editor and staff held under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The UAPA, a draconian anti-terror law that has been increasingly used against human rights activists is now being used to target journalists and independent media.

On 3 October 2023, Delhi Police conducted simultaneous raids in nearly 40 locations including the office of NewsClick and homes of its journalists, staff and contributors including activists. Later, the police arrested and detained the founder and editor of NewsClick Prabir Purkayastha and head of Human Resources Amit Chakraborthy under charges of terrorism and criminal conspiracy.

Yesterday, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case against NewsClick for alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act – a law that has been used to impose discriminatory restrictions on civil society.

NewsClick has been targeted by the Indian authorities since 2021, when the Enforcement Directorate in February 2021 searched their office to investigate an alleged money-laundering probe. Later in September 2021, the Income Tax Department conducted ‘surveys’, at the office of NewsClick.

In August 2023, the New York Times published an investigative article that alleged NewsClick has received funds from a US businessman, and it had “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points”. Days after this article was published, the Delhi police registered a case based on this article against NewsClick and carried out these raids.

During the raids, journalists were forced to hand over their laptops and mobile phones without any due process. This action raises concerns because of the reports of  ‘incriminating evidence’ been planted onto UAPA case implicated activists’ devices. After a day long search, the office of NewsClick was sealed by the police. At least 46 journalists associated with NewsClick were reportedly questioned with some being asked if they hand covered the protests against discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and Farm laws.

“This is a complete assault on press freedom in India and an act of reprisal against the critical and independent journalism of NewsClick. Charging a news outlet under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, is a brazen attempt to silence and harass independent media, activists and citizens. We call for the immediate release of Prabir Purkayastha and Amit Chakraborthy. All charges against NewsClick must be dropped,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

The First Information Report (FIR) registered against NewsClick, levels a range of accusations  including conspiring “to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” by accepting illegal foreign funds over five years, actively spreading false information to discredit the government, ‘causing disaffection against India’, providing legal defence for Chinese companies and peddling “paid news” to criticise domestic policies and development project.

NewsClick has refuted all these accusations outrightly and said that it doesn’t publish any news or information “at the behest of any Chinese entity or authority, directly or indirectly”. It says all funding is received legitimately and reported to relevant authorities as per the legal requirements.

The CIVICUS Monitor has documented how India’s UAPA law has been used to target activists and stifle dissent. Over the years, it has been invoked against human rights activists as an act of reprisal for their human rights work.  UN experts have raised concerns about UAPA’s negative impact on India’s international human rights obligations and called for its review. During India’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2022, several states also raised concerns about the use of UAPA against activists.

“This crackdown against independent media is further testimony of the deterioration of civic space in India. The authorities stop misusing repressive laws like the UAPA against activists, civil society and journalists. They must comply with India’s obligations under international human rights laws and standards”, added Kode.

Civic space in India is rated as “Repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor

CIVICUS is a global alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

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