Officials of the Income Tax Department on Thursday visited locations linked to media entrepreneur couple Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapur. These locations included their residence and the office of their organisation Quintillion Media, which runs the news website The Quint, in Noida. The visit was reportedly in connection with an alleged tax evasion case.
Soon after the officials reached the premises, Bahl said they were conducting a “survey”. Hours later, The Quint posted an article, claiming that an official had said they were conducting a “search” on one floor of the office, and a “survey” on the other. Under the Income Tax Act, officials conducting a “survey” cannot take away anything from the premises, but they have that power during a “search”.
Officials also visited the office of The News Minute in Bengaluru. Quintillion Media has a stake in The News Minute.
Editors Guild of India President Shekhar Gupta expressed “serious concern” over the developments and said it looks like intimidation.
7.43 pm: Former Union Minister Arun Shourie condemns the “absolutely outrageous” searches. “I’ve known Raghav Bahl for almost 25 years and I don’t think I know of another person who’s more committed to the highest ethical and professional standards than Raghav,” The Quint quotes Shourie as saying. “Secondly, a raid or a prosecution or a persecution by a government that lies every other day, actually everyday, is the certificate that The Quint and Raghav and his team are speaking the truth.”
He adds: “I think the raid is a proof of the importance of the work that The Quint is doing and of the effectiveness of its reach. And it is absolutely foolish of this government or for any government to think that such intimidation can silence or will silence the Press.”
7.34 pm: A spokesperson of the Income Tax Department confirms the searches. “Today, the Income Tax Department conducted searches on the premises of businessmen Raghav Bahl, Kamal Lalwani, Anup Jain and Abhimanyu Chaturvedi,” a spokesperson told The Hindu.
“We are looking at a possible tax evasion of more than Rs 100 crore in the case of Mr Bahl himself on account of some long-term capital gains that have accrued to him through the sale of shares of a particular company,” the spokesperson says. “The other three have also been beneficiaries of the sale of shares of the same company, which is why all four of them have been covered together.”
6.02 pm: Amnesty International India says the search and survey indicates a “clampdown on free press”.
“It raises disturbing questions on whether the news website is being targeted for speaking truth to power,” Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, says. “It appears that the authorities are attempting to silence anyone expressing views that are critical of the government.”
5.02 pm: Tushar Banerjee, the head of product and growth at The Quint, says Income Tax officials are now also reading editorial emails at the organisation’s Bengaluru office.
4.50 pm: “As The Quint exposed the [Rafale] story, government panicked and raided not only the residence of Raghav Bahl but also the media office of The Quint,” Surjewala adds. “Never in the history of India has the IT, ED and CBI been misused in this manner to intimidate and suppress independent and dissenting voices.”
4.48 pm: Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala called the search and survey “an undeclared emergency” on press freedom, according to The Quint. “Let me warn Modi government that it is an undeclared emergency and you have broken all records of decency by entering the newsroom of The Quint,” Surjewala says. “You may continue to suppress and subjugate but you will not be able to suppress the voice of the press, especially independent ones like The Quint, and of those journalists who do a fearless duty to the nation.”
3.04 pm: Founding Editor of The Wire, MK Venu, says it is surprising that the tax department “should waste its energy and resources conducting searches” at The Quint and The News Minute. “It is well known that online news media companies barely make profits and the scale of their operations is not big either,” he says.
2.57 pm: “We believe in freedom of press and democratic values,” Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says, according to NDTV. “If any media house is involved in corruption, they have to answer.”
2.48 pm: NDTV India editor Ravish Kumar condemns the raids in a post on Facebook. He claimed the Centre is doing this to “create havoc” in media. The survey and searches are important to bury the latest updates on the Rafale defence deal or the sexual harassment charges against former journalist and now Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar.
2.39 pm: The Committee to Protect Journalists says “this is a direct attack on journalistic freedom”. The body says “it is concerned about reports that suggest tax officials have cloned data” from Ritu Kapur’s gadgets, which contained sensitive journalistic material.
2.35 pm: Chitra Subramaniam, the co-founder of The News Minute, says “things are okay” at the website’s Bengaluru office. “They have seen our audit books. Things are okay here,” she says in a tweet.
Tax officials surveyed The News Minute office in Bengaluru on Thursday morning. Raghav Bahl’s Quintillion Media is an investor in the organisation
2.06 pm: The Editors Guild of India added that it “believes that motivated income tax searches and surveys will seriously undermine media freedom and the government should desist such attempts”.
2.04 pm: “The Guild is also perturbed over Bahl’s statement that he had to strongly advise the tax officials that they should not try and pick up or see any other mail or document which is likely to contain very serious and sensitive journalistic material,” the Editors Guild said in a statement. “While the tax administration is within its rights to make inquiries in compliance with the relevant laws, it should not exercise those powers in a way that could be seen as an intimidation of the government’s critics.”
2 pm: The Editors Guild of India expresses its concern over the search and survey.
1.45 pm: Congress, in a tweet, says the Narendra Modi government is using investigating agencies to suppress freedom of speech and undermine media.
1.26 pm: Congress leader Anand Sharma has called the action a “classic case of how the Modi government is misusing agencies of the state to target those who stand up for the truth”.
Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan says there is no doubt that the action is “only because they [The Quint and Bahl] have been critical of the government and in order to intimidate the media”.
1.14 pm: Congress President Rahul Gandhi says, according to The Quint: “They [BJP] will raid, harass, attack and suppress. That’s their agenda... The government is trying to suppress the media.”
1.12 pm: Apart from Bahl, three other “beneficiaries” and professionals – J Lalwani, Anoop Jain and Abhimanyu – are also being searched, officials tell PTI.
1.10 pm: Bahl, who was in Mumbai, has said he is on his way to Delhi and his wife and mother were confined to their residence and not allowed to speak to anybody, reports PTI. Earlier, Associate Editor of The Quint Poonam Agarwal had claimed that officials were trying to “clone data” from Ritu Kapur’s gadgets.
12.59 pm: According to the Income Tax Act, 1961, tax department officials have the powers of search and seizure under Section 132, and powers of survey under Section 133A. Officials conducting a “survey” cannot take away anything from the premises, but they have that power during a “search”.
Unidentified income tax officials told PTI that they were “searching” the premises to look for documents and other evidence related to the alleged tax evasion case. The Quint says the officials changed their account during their visit to the office – they first said it was a survey, and later called it a survey on one floor and a search on another.
The visit at The News Minute’s office is under Section 133A of the Income Tax Act.
12.46 pm: The Quint says officers are asking for a list of employees and their contact details apart from the company’s books of accounts and other revenue information. Officials initially claimed that “all entries in the offices and residences were for the purposes of a ‘survey’, but they subsequently clarified that they were conducting a ‘search’ on one of the floors at The Quint”, the media organisation says.
“A review of the warrant and the documentation to confirm why this position [from ‘survey’ to ‘search’] changed, or was only intimated to the company at a later stage, is awaited,” says The Quint.
12.43 pm: The Quint posts an article titled “Search? Survey? Why Have I-T Officers at The Quint Changed Stance?”
The article says: “According to the I-T officer leading the team, they are conducting a ‘search’ on one floor of the office, and a ‘survey’ on the other.”
The article confirms the officers are present at Bahl and Kapur’s residence and the offices of The Quint, Quintype and The News Minute. Their media firm Quintillion Media holds a stake in Bengaluru-based The News Minute, while The Quint and Quintype are companies in the group.
12.20 pm: Sanjay Pugalia, the editorial director of The Quint, says the “circumstantial evidence” in this case is the “independent and fearless journalism” of the news organisation. “That’s why I-T search and survey @TheQuint,” he says. “See our coverage and decide for yourself.”
12.15 pm: Poonam Agarwal, associate editor at The Quint, says the tax officials are trying to “clone data” from Ritu Kapur’s gadgets. Ritu Kapur is the co-founder of Quintillion Media and the wife of Raghav Bahl.
“When she [Kapur] screamed and asked me about the law of privacy and whether they can clone her journalistic and personal material, while I was standing outside her residence, two IT officers pulled her inside the house,” Agarwal tweets.
Tax officials do not have the power to take away anything if they are conducting a “survey”.
11.45 am: Raghav Bahl posts his statement on Twitter, tagging the Editors’ Guild.
11.30 am: Tax officials have also surveyed the office of The News Minute in Bengaluru. Bahl’s Quintillion Media is an investor in the organisation. The officials asked for financial documents and audit books. “We are complying with the requests of the officers at our premises,” says Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute.
11.20 am: Journalist Shekhar Gupta calls the survey a matter of “serious concern”. He says: “IT raids on @TheQuint offices and its founder @Raghav_Bahl home are cause for serious concern. Taxman has the right to ask all questions, but raids look like intimidation. If there is justification, govt must explain quickly. Or it will be seen as targeting critical media.”
10.50 am: “While I was in Mumbai this morning, dozens of Income Tax officials descended on my residence and The Quint’s office for a ‘survey’,” says Bahl. “We are a fully tax compliant entity, and will provide all access to all appropriate financial documents. However, I have just spoken to the officer on my premises, one Mr Yadav, and requested him, strongly, to not try and pick up or see any other mail/document which is likely to contain very serious/sensitive journalistic material. If they do that, then we shall seek extremely strong recourse...They should also not misuse their smartphones to take unauthorised copies of this material.”
10.30 am: Income tax officials have visited the office of The Quint and the home of its founder Raghav Bahl in Noida.