The Income Tax Department’s raids at the offices of the Dainik Bhaskar group were an attempt by the government to intimidate the media, press organisations said on Thursday. The Income Tax department also raided the office of Lucknow-based TV channel Bharat Samachar.

Dainik Bhaskar had widely reported on the second wave of Covid-19 and its devastating effects. In a series of reports, the newspaper was critical of the Centre’s claims on vaccination figures, underreporting of deaths, floating bodies in Ganga river and the toll due to oxygen shortages.

Bharat Samachar had highlighted the Adityanath government’s poor handling of the coronavirus crisis in Uttar Pradesh.

Last month, an opinion piece by Dainik Bhaskar’s national editor Om Gaur on the Covid-19 deaths was published in The New York Times. Headlined, “The Ganges is returning the dead. It does not lie”, the article said the bodies on the banks of India’s holiest river were a testimony to the Narendra Modi administration’s failure in handling the health crisis.

The Editors Guild of India said central agencies were “being used as a coercive tool to suppress free and independent journalism”. It added: “This is all the more disturbing given the recent media reports on the wide spread surveillance of journalists and civil society activists using the Pegasus software.”

The association also questioned the timing of the raids. “They come against the backdrop of in depth reporting on the pandemic by Dainik Bhaskar, which brought to fore the gross mismanagement by government authorities and the immense loss of human lives,” it added.

The Press Council of India criticised the Income Tax raids, calling it an “act of intimidation” via enforcement agencies “to deter the independent media from discharging their duties”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a United States-based media body, said such raids were aimed at intimidating news outlets critical of the government. It urged India to revive its long tradition of press freedom and “allow journalists to report freely on matters of public interest”.

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for CPJ, said that “the use of tax raids against media properties like Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar is a vile tactic transparently aimed at intimidating news outlets that report critically on India’s government”. He said such action against media needs to stop now.

The newspaper put out an online statement titled, “The government is scared of true journalism; it is trying to browbeat the Bhaskar group, which highlighted dead bodies in the Ganga river and the true number of Covid-19 deaths.”

Dhanik Bhaskar editor Gaur said the raids were likely an attempt to suppress independent journalism. “We won’t give in to pressure,” he told NDTV. “We will stick to our journalism”.

Gaur told The Telegraph the raids were a result of the newspaper’s “aggressive reporting” during the second wave of the pandemic. “Unlike some other media outlets, we highlighted the true picture and reported how people died for lack of oxygen and hospital beds,” he added. “We will not be scared at these intimidating tactics. We are accountable to our readers and will continue to stand with the truth.”

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The raids

The raids took place in Bhopal and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Jaipur in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad in Gujarat and a few locations in Maharashtra. The raids at Dhanik Bhaskar offices started at 7 am and continued late into the night, reported The Telegraph. The search at Bharat Samachar’s Lucknow office ended at 8.30 pm.

The Income Tax department has not issued a statement on the raids so far, but an unidentified official said they received information about alleged tax evasions by various companies of the group.

The newspaper said that mobiles phones of employees present in the office were confiscated, and they were being prevented from leaving the premises. “The employees on night shift have also been barred from going out of the office,” it added.