The Editors Guild of India, Digipub News India Foundation and the Foundation for Media Professionals on Saturday expressed concerns about the “survey operations” carried out by income tax officials at the offices of news websites Newslaundry and Newsclick in Delhi.
Around seven officials of the Income Tax department visited Newslaundry’s office in Sarvodaya Enclave in South Delhi at 11.45 am on Friday. The operation aimed to verify tax payment details and remittances made by the organisations, officials said.
The Editors Guild said that the “dangerous trend” of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media undermines constitutional democracy.
The guild said that as per the statement of Newslaundry co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri, the surveys were “a clear intimidatory and blatant attack on their rights, and therefore press freedom”.
The statement by the Editors Guild took note of allegations that the Income Tax team downloaded data from Sekhri’s phone, laptop and office machines and did not give him a hash value of the data that was copied.
“The Guild is deeply concerned that such indiscriminate seizure of journalists’ data, which could include sensitive information such as details of sources, stories under works and other journalistic data, is in violation of free speech and freedom of press,” the Editors Guild said.
The Guild also recalled actions taken by the income tax department at the offices of newspaper Dainik Bhaskar and news channel Bharat Samachar in July. The surveys were carried at several offices of the media group and homes of its promoters on charges of tax evasion.
It noted that the action was taken “against the backdrop of some very critical coverage by both the news organisations on government’s handling of the pandemic.”
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.
Similarly, Bharat Samachar’s recent reporting has also been critical of the Uttar Pradesh government’s handling of the pandemic.
Digipub condemns ‘sustained pattern of intimidation’
Digipub, an association of 11 digital news organisations, said that it “condemns in the strongest terms the sustained pattern of intimidation” against the two news outlets.
Scroll.in is among the founding members of the Digipub News India Foundation. The other members of the association are Alt News, Article 14, Boomlive, Cobrapost, HW News, Newsclick, Newslaundry, The News Minute, The Quint and The Wire.
The association said the authorities must clarify why Newslaundry and Newsclick “have been repeatedly subjected to raids and searches”.
Digipub noted that phones and laptops were impounded during the search and data was cloned. “This violates the right to privacy,” the association noted in its statement. “It also compromises journalistic sources.”
The association added: “It is a cause for grave worry that the authorities have potentially gained access to confidential information that the journalists may have been privy to in the course of their work.”
Digipub said that it is “shocked by the harassment meted out by Income Tax officials to the editors of the two publications”. It added that journalists must be allowed to carry out the role of a watchdog to institutions of state without fear of intimidation and punitive action.
Organisations critical of government being subjected to such action, says FMP
The Foundation for Media Professionals also condemned actions of the Income Tax department.
“It has become commonplace to see only media organisations critical of the government being subjected to police cases and visits by tax authorities,” it said in a statement.
The journalists’ body said that officials seizing Sekhri’s mobile phone and laptop amounted to breach of the confidentiality of journalistic sources.
“Tax payers’ money demands accountability, and this includes ensuring that government organisations running on taxpayer money are not misused for personal benefits by corrupt officials or politicians,” the Foundation for Media Professionals said.