Several journalist associations on Wednesday expressed concern over the manner in which the Delhi Police carried out searches and seizures at the office of The Wire and the homes of four of its editors, saying that the action was excessive and disproportionate.
On Monday, the police searched the premises of The Wire’s founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu and Sidharth Bhatia, and deputy editor Jahnavi Sen as well as the news website’s business head Mithun Kidambi. Officers seized their electronic devices based on a complaint filed by Bharatiya Janata Party social media chief Amit Malviya.
A first information report was registered by the Delhi Police on October 31 against the four editors on charges of cheating, forgery, defamation and criminal conspiracy over a series of retracted articles claiming that Instagram took down, without review, any posts that Malviya had flagged.
On October 23, The Wire had retracted the articles and started a review of its reporting and editorial processes. On October 29, the organisation filed a police complaint against its researcher Devesh Kumar alleging that he had “fabricated and supplied documents, emails and other material such as videos with a view to damaging The Wire and its reputation”.
The Wire said the police physically pushed its lawyer out of the office in Delhi and seized two hard disks used by the website’s accounts staff without giving any hash value or providing a cloned copy. A hash value is a unique number used to ensure that a device and its data have not been tampered with.
On Wednesday, the Editors Guild of India criticised “the haste with which the police searches were carried out” across multiple locations and urged the authorities not to use intimidatory tactics in disregard of democratic principles.
It noted that the seizure of phones, computers and iPads from the homes of journalists and the office violated the rules of the investigation. The police searches were intimidating and alarming, the statement added.
“Moreover, digital devices of editors and journalists would have sensitive information pertaining to journalistic sources and stories under work, the confidentiality of which can be seriously compromised in such seizures,” the statement said.
The association urged the law enforcement agencies to adhere to the rules of investigation and ensure that the work of the news organisation is not hampered.
The Press Club of India along with the Delhi Union of Journalists, Press Association, Working News Cameraman Association, Indian Journalist Union, Digipub News India Foundation and Kerala Union of Working Journalists also said that the Delhi Police’s action based on a BJP spokesperson’s request smacked of vendetta.
“Such actions have a chilling effect on the rest of the media and impact the freedom of speech as well,” they said.
The journalist associations also noted that the complaint against The Wire was filed after the news website retracted the articles about Meta and admitted to serious lapses.
The Wire’s retraction of the articles along with a promise to conduct an internal review of editorial lapses is one of the best principles of self-regulation, said the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists on Tuesday.
“The Wire’s admission of lapses was quickly seized upon by the BJP as well as the Delhi Police to conduct raids is highly regrettable and deplorable,” a statement read. “Clearly vendetta politics is at play here, given The Wire’s reputation as an independent and critical news portal.”
The Mumbai Press Club said that the matter should have ended after The Wire retracted the articles. It noted that the news website has not shied away from publishing stories that criticise the current government.
“The latest police attacks are nothing but a counterblast to teach the news network a lesson, send out a chilling message, and intimidate journalists who are critical to the ruling regime,” a statement from the Mumbai Press Club added.
While taking note of The Wire’s apology, the press club stated that it does not take away from the fact that the news organisation failed to verify its information.
“Fact-checking and seeking the response of all stakeholders involved are normal processes that should have been adopted,” it said. “More so for a news outlet that prides itself on standing by the ideals of good journalism.”
The body called for honest introspection as registering a criminal complaint against one researcher does not excuse the editors from critically examining their actions.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties said that it strongly condemns the raids on the office and homes of The Wire’s senior editors.
“What makes the police’s actions suspect is that the they conducted the search and seizure despite knowing fully about the public retraction of the stories which formed the basis of the criminal complaint...” the organisation said.
It added that the intent behind the police was to browbeat The Wire’s editors and to “scare other media persons of their fates if they dared to challenge the ruling interests”.
The People’s Union of Civil Liberties also alleged that the police did not follow proper procedures while taking away electronic devices from the news portal’s office. “There are legitimate concerns that absence of a hash value leaves the door open to planting material on the digital devices,” it said.
The organisation said that the raids seemed like an attempt to intimidate and silence independent media from performing its professional role.