NewsClick A Victim of US Politics and BJP’s Itch to Repress Media 

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The man who is supposed to have partly funded NewsClick through non-profits is Neville Roy Sangham, a US Tech multi-millionaire based in Shanghai. The New York Times (NYT) in a report titled ‘A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul’, published on August 5, 2023, called him a Chinese propaganda tool. 

The larger story is one about Chinese influence on Americans through media and is essentially a political piece using Singham as a battering ram against the target political class at a time when Presidential Election heat in the US has started. 

In the report, NYT accused Singham of being a Chinese propaganda tool by eliciting his proximity to Marxists and communists and their causes. For the purpose, it cites evidence of his irregular presence at various leftist events including protests like “No-Cold War” and “No Climate Change” held by communists funded by trusts that are in turn funded by him. 

The publication goes on to assert that as per its investigations, NewsClick, among other news websites around the world, is funded by Singham through non-profits to promote “Chinese government Talking points.” It cites some corporate filings and a video about 70 years of the Chinese revolution posted by NewsClick on Youtube to buttress its claim.

Singham, on the other hand, told NYT, “I categorically deny and repudiate any suggestion that I am a member of, work for, take orders from, or follow instructions of any political party or government or their representatives. I am solely guided by my beliefs, which are my long-held personal views.”

Sangham does not hide his Marxists leanings either, just as the Communists in India do not. US law allows it while the country has its own ‘Communist Party USA’, just like India has Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI(M) or CPM), both of which draw heavily from Marxism.

Being a Marxist is not a crime either. Being Marxist also neither makes you a Chinese agent and ally, nor a sympathizer. Thousands of Indians, including Marxists, have business ties with the Chinese, while Chinese firms have even contributed to the controversial PM Cares fund.  Itdoes not make them Chinese agents or pro-China.

In addition, NYT did not discover anything about NewsClick on its own. It took the cue from Indian law and order agencies and added fuel to fire.

Earlier, in 2020, the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing (EOW) registered a case under sections of the Indian Penal Code applicable to criminal breach of trust, cheating and criminal conspiracy against NewsClick.

The case pertained to the foreign direct investment received by PPK NewsClick Studio Private Limited, which owns the portal, from Worldwide Media Holdings LLC, US, during 2018-19. The police alleged that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) norms were violated.

Later, in 2021, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided NewsClick  over its sources of funding and accused it of money laundering and paid news.

But NYT then went on to claim in its August 5, 2023, report that it found an indirect link between NewsClick and Singham and accused of NewsClick of having a pro-China propaganda agenda financed by the Chinese regime through Sangham.

In reality, in the 2021 case, ED claimed that inward remittances of about Rs 78 Cr received from various trusts by NewsClick as “export service remittances” were false as it had found no evidence of such services.

It also alleged that NewsClick received Rs 9.6 crores from Singham through other entities, with the objective of promoting anti-national news at the behest of Singham. WION reports that an additional Rs 38 crore was received by the portal from an ‘undisclosed source in China.’

The ED additionally claims the funding pattern of PPK NEWSCLICK Studio Pvt Ltd, which owns the portal, shows it was created to ‘upload anti-national news at the instance of Singham as he made all the investment by way of FDI and transferring of export proceeds. It calls Sangham a ‘Chinese Empathizer.’

However, despite all these charges, acting on a petition filed by NewsClick, the Delhi high Court prevented the ED from any coercive action including arrest against NewsClick staff over the charges . It must have good reasons for doing so despite the serious charges.

As reported by Deccan Herald, the ED was also expected to file a charge-sheet over these alleged economic offences in August this year but that did not happen.

Instead, after NYT published its story on Aug 5, Delhi Police Special Cell on August 17 filed a fresh FIR against NewsClick under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). It admittedly used some of the material of ED and what it claims are its own “technical evidence and analysis” to slap the case.

Two days ago, it then raided the offices of the portal and those of its journalists, contributors, and other staff. After a search of their premises and questioning them, the police confiscated the mobiles and laptops of journalists and contributors, failing to give them a copy of the data as required and did all of it without a warrant.

In addition, the Delhi police who first charged the portal with sections of the IPC in 2020, now justify a new FIR applying UAPA by saying they are investigating a ‘terror case that has Chinese links,’ and that NewsClick was indulging in ‘informational warfare’ – both covered by provisions of this draconian law.

NewsClick, on the other hand, issued a statement saying “NewsClick does not take directions from Neville Roy Singham regarding the content published on its website…” adding that the portal does not publish any news at the behest of any Chinese entities or propagate Chinese propaganda.

Undoubtedly, whatever allegations of economic offences have been levelled against Newsclick must undergo scrutiny through investigation and due process of law, but at best, if true, it would be only economic offences that NewsClick is guilty of committing if any.

However, when it comes to the alleged Chinese regime connection of NewsClick and the bonafides and agenda of the recent raids at NewsClick, very pertinent questions arise.

For instance, among all the entities involved, the NYT story concerns the US most because it refers to Chinese influence on the US population and elsewhere. But after the August 5, even two months after the NYT report, the US government has neither officially investigated Singham funded trusts operating from US soil – entities from whom funds flowed for allegedly promoting Chinese propaganda – nor has it responded to the report.

It would be foolhardy to assume that the US government ignored the allegations. Instead, since it was a political matter in the backdrop of a forth coming election year, it can be safely assumed that the US government had a look at it and did its due diligence. Its what governments normally do, especially those facing elections soon.

Besides, China is a hot political potato in US politics. If the US government had even a shard of evidence of Singham or the non-profits funded by him being connected to the Chinese regime, it would have publicly nailed him for its own benefit. It would be a political disaster for the ruling democrats to not do so in the face of NYT’s egregious claims.

For all practical purposes, NYT has not discovered any hidden evidence buried deep in the earth. It merely created a circumstantial story with information gleaned from the public domain without any actual proof of Singham receiving funds from China or of acting at the Chinese regime’s behest.

Hence, since even the US government does not have any evidence on Singham’s connections with the Chinese regime, how is one expected to believe the Chinese-NewsClick connection alleged by NYT?

Likewise, what prima facie evidence could Delhi police possibly have discovered that US has not to register a fresh FIR against Newsclick 12 days after NYT published the story, that too evidence that merits the application of the draconian UAPA while the police case of 2020 and ED case of 2021 remain open?

When it comes to China related news on NewsClick, it is almost always analysis done by Abhisar Sharma onlyon issues including Chinese occupation of Indian territory, the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and PM’s silence on anything pertaining to China. It questions the government on its failures with regards to China and does not take a pro-China stand nor propagate such news. It may be an anti-establishment news website, but to call it a Chinese tool is not merely far-fetched but a madman’s concoction.

So what if the portal posted a video about 70 years of the Chinese revolution? Does that make it part of a Chinese conspiracy against the Indian state?  It was posted in a particular news context which is a normal practice in journalism. TV channels show similar documentaries of great leaders and significant events in history from around the world on relevant days. There are also a multitude of our own publications that publish sections called “This day 100 years ago.’ How does the posting of a such a video about China denote a NewsClick-China conspiracy?

To top it all, NYT says in the same story that “the authorities in India raided a news organization tied to Mr. Singham during a crackdown on the press (in 2021), accusing it of having ties to the Chinese government but offering no proof.” So, did NYT find prima facie proof which will stand the test of law which professional agencies like ED and the vast US intelligence apparatus have not? If so, why has it not published the evidence?

No informed reader will take the NYT story at face value, especially since Presidential elections in the US are just a year away and newspapers play a major role in influencing public opinion.  Perhaps the best depiction of the fallacy of the story comes from readers who commented on the Aug 5, NYT article:

James from Chicago says “So the guy creates media outlets with a pro-China view, and donates money to other media outlets also with a pro-China view. I’m no legal expert but that seems neither illegal nor FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) applicable. Where is the evidence that he’s taking money or direction from the Chinese government?”

Similarly, Laura from Brooklyn says, “…Instead, at one swoop, this article seems to be preparing us for war with China and vilifying anyone with a peace agenda or Left politics in general. And in a glaring logical fallacy it implies that if you hold a view that happens to coincide with that of a foreign leader, you are automatically either an agent or stooge of that leader. If Xi says the sky is blue and so do I, that makes me un-American. For shame.”

Essentially, the NYT story was a political piece meant for domestic political consumption in which NewsClick happened to figure. The fact also is that, beginning in 2020, by its repeated targeting of the portal, the Modi regime indicated it wanted to fix NewsClick as part of its incessant campaign to silence all media that exposes its misgovernance, shenanigans and illegal conduct. NewsClick has been particularly vocal about PM Modi’s failures and misgovernance.

At the same time, there was no way the Delhi police would be able to have anybody from NewsClick locked up for long on the IPC charges made in 2020 as people facing same charges in frauds involving much larger amounts have been given bail by the Supreme Court even before arrest.

Same case with the ED proceedings in 2021. It would not be able to either lock up the premises nor arrest anyone from NewsClick for long with the charges made by it against the portal.

But the opportunity to do this came knocking when NYT without publishing any proof save a link to a historical video alleged a Chinese connection with NewsClick. The Indian regime seems to have lapped it up without application of mind and decided to put UAPA into play, under which people can be locked up for as much as two years without possibility of bail.

Most importantly, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell’s 25 identical questions to all the journos and contributors – questions concerning their coverage of Delhi riots, Farmer Protests, Shaheen Bhag protests, Elgar Parishad and CAA protests, among others, indicates that the Delhi Police filed the UAPA charges with precious little legally sustainable evidence and is now looking for evidence to fit its pre-meditated charges.

By seizing  phones and laptops of journalist, contributors and other staff, it has once again gone fishing like it did in the Elgar Parishad case.

In the Elgar Parishad case, as reported by US magazine Wired, a US-based cybersecurity company said Pune Police hacked the electronic devices of activists Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao and Hany Babu and planted fake evidence on them. The three of them are accused under UAPA in the case. Nothing is beyond the regime’s bag of tricks to retain its political fortunes.

In all of this, what is most bizarre is that, after banning Singham’s software company ThoughtWorks, the Indian government lifted the ban in 2023 – two years after the ED started investigating NewsClick. Sangham whom NYT calls a Chinese can operate in India but NewsClick cannot?

Meanwhile, the Problem for the Delhi police is that the Delhi High Court had already ordered the police not to coerce NewsClick over the ED case, the content and allegations of which also reflects in the FIR filed under sections of UAPA and IPC as well. Whether the High Court will take lightly to the jumla of the government going around the High Court’s orders by registering a third FIR inspired by a news report needs to be seen.

Particularly so because in April this year, in the MediaOne case, a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud unequivocally said “national security claims cannot be made out of thin air,” and that the state using national security as a “tool” to deny citizens legal remedies is not compatible with the rule of law.

About author: Oliver D’Souza is a senior journalist and award winning author

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