The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of Prabir Purkayastha, the editor-in-chief of news website NewsClick, and declared that his arrest was illegal, Bar and Bench reported.

A bench of Justices BR Gavai and Sandeep Mehta on Wednesday noted that a copy of the remand application was not given to the NewsClick editor-in-chief or his lawyer, and so, the court order remanding him to custody was not valid.

“There is no hesitation in the mind of the Court to reach to a conclusion that a copy of the remand application, in the purported exercise of the communication of the grounds of arrest in writing, was not provided to the accused-appellant or his counsel before the passing of the remand order dated 4th October, 2023, which vitiates the arrest and the subsequent remand of the appellant,” the bench said, according to Live Law.

The Supreme Court, while ordering Purkayastha to be freed, said that the release would be subject to him submitting bail bonds to the satisfaction of the trial court.

Additional Solicitor General SV Raju sought a clarification to the effect that the Supreme Court order would not stop the police from arresting Purkayastha again after following the correct procedure. However, the court declined to make a statement on the matter.

“Whatever you are permitted to do under law, you are permitted,” Justice Gavai said.

The Delhi Police had on October 3 raided several journalists associated with NewsClick and arrested Purkayastha and Amit Chakraborty, NewsClick’s head of human resources, in a case filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

On January 9, Chakraborty was granted pardon after a Delhi court allowed him to turn approver – or act as a government witness – in the case. The Delhi High Court on May 6 ordered his release.

The Supreme Court bench had reserved its order on April 30 after Purkayastha approached it challenging the legality of his arrest. He contended that the grounds of his arrest were not provided to him in writing as mandated by the court.

However, the Delhi Police said that the grounds were contained in the remand application.

The court, during the proceedings, had also noted that Purkayastha’s remand order was passed at 6 am on October 4. However, the NewsClick editor-in-chief’s lawyer received a copy of it later.

The bench had questioned the “hot haste” with which the Delhi Police produced Purkayastha before a magistrate without informing his lawyer, Live Law reported.

Case against NewsClick

The Delhi Police on March 30 filed a chargesheet against Purkayastha and news portal’s parent company PPK NewsClick Studio Private Limited, alleging that they received funds through Chinese entities “with the intention of undermining India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The case was registered after The New York Times alleged in an August 5 report that NewsClick had received money from American businessman Neville Roy Singham, who worked closely with the “Chinese government media machine” to spread its propaganda.

The Delhi Police’s first information report describes Singham as an active member of the propaganda department of the Communist Party of China. Singham, however, alleged that The New York Times “intentionally chose not to publish” his responses to the August 5 article and did a disservice to the cause of press freedom.

The police also alleged in the chargesheet that Purkayastha and the website were involved in funding Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and inciting violence in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.

NewsClick, however, said that the allegations were absurd and baseless.

News associations react

Digipub News India Foundation, an association of digital-only news outlets, on Wednesday welcomed the Supreme Court’s order.

“We urge the government to exercise caution and restraint in its deliberate and regressive war against media houses it doesn’t agree with,” it said. “We hope Prabir is released immediately and that he is given a fair trial in accordance with the law.”

Digipub said that it has “consistently condemned” the police action against NewsClick, where journalists were interrogated, their devices seized and their homes raided, culminating in the senior journalist’s arrest.

“In a democracy, a government cannot unleash central agencies against the free press, especially in the absence of due process,” it said. “Laws must not be weaponised against journalists, putting their life, liberty and livelihood at risk.”

The Press Club of India welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision and alleged that the Centre wants to silence the media for reportage and commentary on contemporary issues.

“Journalist bodies had unitedly protested against his [Purkayastha’s] illegal arrest at the Press Club of India,” it said in a post on X. “We have been raising concerns over invocation of UAPA against the journalists as the government wants to create fear among the mediapersons.”

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