I have been reading about the attacks on journalists, arrests of activists, writers and watching how all democratic space for dissent are closing.
More than 150 journalists have been arrested, detained and interrogated between 2010 and 2020, a study by journalist Geeta Seshu has documented. Of these cases, 40% were reported in 2020 alone.
The raids this week by the Enforcement Directorate on the offices and homes of journalists of the independent news site Newsclick
are a part of that attack on free speech, dissent and democratic space. But the political significance of the raids on Newsclick are of much greater political significance than attacks on individual journalists.
Newsclick has emerged as an independent news platform built over years of careful nurturing of talent and creativity of younger generation of journalists. I remember the first shabby studio in 2009 where I was first interviewed by Prabir Purkayastha, the organisation’s founder, about some events in the North East. It was just one room. People who barely knew how to handle the equipment held the cameras and experimented with the lights.
Purkayasthya did most of the interviews himself and without the aura or glamour of TV presenters. On the tenth anniversary of Newsclick in 2019, he told the audience that he had started the organisation because the younger generation learnt its politics from visual media rather than from reading like we did in our generation. Newsclick was a way of teaching politics to youth through the media with which they felt most comfortable.
Since then, Newsclick has attracted a huge amount of talent. It has become a space for them to grow collectively. One of the younger journalists who had once come to interview me said she loved Newsclick because the journalists were drawn from all parts of the country and from different backgrounds.
Newsclick has consistently spoken truth to power. This is not only on immediate political concerns but a wide range of issues from science, technology to culture and politics. Amidst all this, the organisation’s reporting on the protest against the new agriculture laws by the farmers sitting on Delhi’s borders has been exceptional. The stories have attracted some 40 million views.
I had first seen Prabir Purkayastha in Jawaharlal Nehru University in the last days of the Emergency. He had only recently been released from Tihar jail and had completed his studies from the prison. Later, I worked with him on a court case where we challenged the privatisation of the telecommunications sector. I know of his work in the Delhi Science Forum, which aims to popularise science, and more recently in Newsclick.
I have not been able to speak to him directly so I cannot say how he would compare his experience of the Emergency with the experience on the present attack on Newsclick. But during the Emergency, even though journalists were arrested and censorship was imposed, institutions were not destroyed in the manner that is happening now.
It is ironic that Indian Express, which was in the forefront of the fight against censorship during the Emergency, published an article based on selective leaks by the Enforcement Directorate against a person whose personal integrity has never been questioned by even those who disagree with his political views.
It seems unbelievable that the Indian Express would write an article based on leaks by an organisation whose own credibility is not very high and about raids that are obviously motivated to silence dissent.
In a statement countering reports aimed at maligning it, Newsclick said:
“We are, however, disturbed to note reports in various media outlets based on information allegedly provided by senior officials of the Enforcement Directorate. The selective leak of misleading facts is nothing but a malicious attempt to smear the image of Newsclick and discredit our journalism. It also constitutes a violation of the sanctity of the legal and investigative process.
As mentioned in our editorial statement of February 10, these raids appear to be part of a trend of deploying government agencies against those who refuse to toe the establishment’s line.”
The raids on Newsclick have been condemned by prominent media people across the country. Several people have issued statements of solidarity based on their deep respect for the role Newsclick has played in keeping alive independence of the media.
In their statements, the journalists have voiced their own anguish at the state of journalism which, as one said, had become just about reporting tweets or the inconvenience faced by the middle class when the farmers, or Dalits or Muslims protest. P Sainath congratulated the journalists at Newsclick for declining to be “stenographers to power”. Veteran journalist, Pamela Philipose said Newsclick provides “meaning and insight through its daily efforts”.
Prabir Prukayastha has never tried to hide his political ideology and membership of an established communist party. But unlike many communists of his generation, he has built a truly democratic institution. Still, Newsclick has also shown that its strength lies in organisation and not being based on a neblus “non-party political formulation”.
Purkayastha has built a strong organisations and provided leadership and direction by his clear vision rooted in ideology and political analysis. Politics and political analysis informs the reporting in Newsclick and makes it a solid ally of political movements that challenge neo-liberal and fascist ideology and institutions. That is why the raids and attack on the integrity of Newsclick needs to be opposed by all of us who care not only about journalism but about democracy.
On a personal note, Prabir Purkayastha and Newsclick have given me space to speak, to write even when he does not agree with my views. Newsclick has allowed me to be a small part of the larger community of comrades and friends even when I am far from them physically. It is a space I value more than anything else because it is the space from where we can continue battling for India of our dreams, keeping alive the dream of a socialist and secular India.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.