News website The Wire on Monday claimed that Delhi Police officials pushed one of its lawyers and took away hard drives from its office without giving cloned copies during the searches in connection with the first information report filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Malviya.

The searches were conducted at the office of The Wire, the homes of four of its editors – Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu, Sidharth Bhatia and Jahnavi Sen – and also the home of the organisation’s head of product Mithun Kidambi, two days after the FIR was registered for cheating, forgery, defamation and criminal conspiracy.

The searches were conducted in Delhi and Mumbai.

Malviya’s complaint relates to a series of articles about social media company Meta that The Wire retracted on October 23.

The Wire had claimed that Malviya, who heads the BJP social media cell, had special privileges through an Instagram programme called X-Check that ensured that any posts he reports are removed from the platform immediately, with “no questions asked”. Meta is the parent firm of Instagram.

In its statement on Monday, The Wire said that the Crime Branch unit of the police took away hard disks from two computers used by the accounts staff without giving any hash value or providing a cloned copy so that the normal financial work of the organisation can without interruption.

The hash value is a unique numerical value that uniquely identifies data.

The news organisation also said that the editors fully cooperated with the police and gave the devices they sought.

“We also placed on record our demand for the hash value of the phones, computers and iPads seized and for cloned copies of the devices seized to be kept at a neutral place,” it added.

The Wire has claimed that it had been deceived by a member of its investigative team.

On October 29, the digital publication filed a police complaint against researcher Devesh Kumar, who had worked on the Meta articles, claiming that he “fabricated and supplied documents, emails and other material such as videos with a view to damaging The Wire and its reputation.”

Meanwhile, seven journalist bodies, including the Press Club of India on Tuesday expressed concern on the manner in which the searches were conducted by the Delhi Police.

“The PCI [Press Club of India] is of the view that while the media has a responsibility to report and has to be responsible in reporting at all times, the manner in which the Delhi Police has acted on the complaint of a BJP spokesperson smacks of sheer vendetta,” a statement signed by the press bodies under the letterhead of the Press Club of India noted.

It added that the action will have a chilling effect on the media and impact freedom of speech.

‘The Wire’ vs Meta controversy

The controversy started after on October 6, The Wire said that Instagram had deleted a satirical post showing a man worshipping a statue of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath for violating the platform’s guidelines on “nudity and sexual content” even though the image did not depict any nudity.

The publication followed this up with a report on October 10 claiming that the post was taken down after a complaint by Malviya, the head of the BJP’s social media cell. The Wire report claimed that Malviya has special privileges through an Instagram programme called X-Check that ensures that any posts he reports are removed from the platform immediately, with “no questions asked”, even if they do not violate Meta’s rules.

On October 11, Andy Stone, Meta’s communications director, said that The Wire’s report was based on false information. He said that X-Check system had “nothing to do with the ability to report posts”.

He also said that “posts in question were surfaced for review by automated systems, not humans” and that an internal report of Instagram cited by The Wire’s source “appears to be fabricated”.

Defending its report, The Wire published another article on October 11, with an image of an email allegedly sent by Stone on October 11 in which he rebuked some of his colleagues, asking them how the internal Instagram report “got leaked” and seeking more information on the matter.

The report also claimed that Stone had asked his colleagues to put Varadarajan and Sen on a “watchlist”.

Meta’s Chief Information Security Officer Guy Rosen claimed that the email, too, was fake.

After this, The Wire on October 15 said it had verified Stone’s email and produced more technical evidence to support its claims. But this was met with scepticism from technical experts.

The news website had also published an explanation of the technical process that it had followed while writing the articles, which cited redacted emails from two cybersecurity experts. However, both the experts later denied having been part of the process.