The early morning raids on 3 October on the residences of nearly fifty journalists and employees associated with digital news portal Newsclick signalled an extremely sinister assault on India's critical media voices. The Newsclick raids in different NCR locations were preceded by NIA raids on human rights campaigners and civil society activists in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana just the previous day. While most of the Newsclick journalists and employees were let off after hours of searches and interrogation, the founder editor of Newsclick Prabir Purkayastha and senior administrator Amit Chakraborty were detained under UAPA. And on the very next day following the Newsclick raids, AAP RS MP Sanjay Singh was arrested from his residence in connection with the alleged excise scam even as DMK MP KT Jagatrakshakan was subjected to IT raids in Tamil Nadu on charges of tax evasion. Together these raids and arrests signal a new and more widespread and desperate phase of the repression that earlier led to a series of arrests in what have come to be known as the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi Riots cases.
As in the Bhima Koregaon case, digital devices have been unconstitutionally confiscated in the Newsclick raids and there is every possibility that these devices will now be used to implicate the journalists with the help of some dubious Israeli spyware technology like Pegasus. The manner of the raids, the invocation of UAPA in the FIR against Newsclick and the narrative being framed all point to a massive conspiracy to criminalise true journalism that speaks truth to power as terrorism. Such journalism is being portrayed as driven by foreign interests and pursuing an anti-national agenda. Journalists are being interrogated for having covered the farmers' movement, the anti-CAA movement or exposing the failure of the state in dealing with communal violence or the Covid pandemic. The farmers' movement is now once again being presented as a conspiracy to damage and disrupt the Indian economy. This narrative reduces permitted journalism to government propaganda and conflates dissent with sedition and terrorism.
The latest FIR against Newsclick followed the publication of a story in The New York Times about the alleged connection between a Shanghai-based American millionaire and foreign publicity platforms of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state. The American millionaire in question, Neville Roy Singham, is described as a software entrepreneur with socialist beliefs with international funding links in progressive circles, especially in BRICS countries like Brazil, South Africa and India, and Newsclick is mentioned as a beneficiary of this funding network. It should be noted that the Economic Offences Wing had filed a case of violation of FDI norms against Newsclick in August 2020 and the ED searched its premises in February 2021. Newsclick has refuted all allegations and affirmed that the funding has been above board and in due compliance with the law of the land; but now, weaponising the NYT story, UAPA has been invoked in the case. The attempt to link the journalistic content of Newsclick with alleged Chinese agenda and propaganda on the basis of some alleged Chinese funding and stakes of Chinese companies is an obnoxious design to malign the very idea of independent journalism and free media in India.
Even as Newsclick and now the farmers' movement are being implicated as a Chinese conspiracy and foreign-funded terrorism, the Modi government has been completely silent about the border dispute between India and China and the reported loss of Indian control around the India-China LAC. India's trade deficit with China has been steadily increasing and Chinese mobile phones have been expanding their market share in India. These companies have been sponsoring major sporting events, shows in dominant television channels and even contributing money to the PM Cares fund, even though there are allegations of tax evasion and other financial irregularities against some of these companies. If accepting advertisements by Chinese companies is an anti-national act amounting to promotion of terrorism then the government of India has to be held accountable in the first place!
The bogey of Chinese propaganda is being raised clearly to intimidate and persecute media voices that refuse to amplify the Modi government's own propaganda and instead stick to the journalistic principles of investigation, accuracy and speaking truth to power. The Modi government has systematically transformed much of India's dominant 'mainstream' media into an extension of official propaganda and India's big corporates have been complicit in this campaign. The acquisition of NDTV, the one TV channel which was till recently known for highlighting burning issues concerning the common people, by the Adani group and the subsequent transformation of the channel is a brazen example of this stark reality.
This has clearly eroded the credibility of the dominant media and more and more people have been increasingly turning to the social media and digital platforms to gather information and analysis. The farmers' movement had explicitly rejected the 'Godi Media' along with the three pro-corporate farm laws and the design of corporate takeover of India's agriculture. The Modi government is perfectly aware of this changing media scene and it is now desperately looking for ways to suppress and subvert the independent media space in the digital arena. The Modi government's growing open collaboration with select social media influencers and the vindictive campaign against independent journalists constitute a two-pronged media management strategy to suppress the residual space for pro-people pro-democracy media in today's India. Along with suppression and persecution of the media, there is a growing design to portray the entire agenda of the Left and other progressive forces and pro-people causes and people's movements as a grand 'anti-national conspiracy' funded and driven by foreign interests. While many voices in the media and intelligentsia are continuing to resist this design, the common people must stand in support of India's persecuted journalists and activists to defend every inch of India's democratic space.
(ML Update Editorial, Vol. 26 | No. 42 | 10 – 16 Oct 2023)