New Delhi: The Income Tax department’s “survey” at the offices of web portals Newslaundry and Newsclick in the national capital Friday lasted for around 12 hours from noon until midnight, the portals said in separate statements.
The portals called the seizure of “personal data” during the survey a “violation” of rights. However, the tax department told PTI that the operations were “conducted to verify certain tax payment details and remittances made by the organisations”.
In his statement after the I-T team left his office, Newslaundry CEO and co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri said a team of “six or seven people” served a warrant under Section 133 A of the Income Tax Act. The team also downloaded data from Sekhri’s personal mobile phone and laptop, and a couple of office machines, without providing signed hash value, the statement said.
Newsclick Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha said the I-T team recorded his statement, impounded his phone, and “took away documents – what they called “loose papers” from the premises”. The I-T team also took email dumps of Purkayastha, editor Pranjal, and various administrative and financial accounts related to Newsclick, the statement added.
The Editors Guild of India Saturday said it is “deeply disturbed” about the raids at the two portals, noting that both “NewsClick and Newslaundry have been critical of policies and functioning of the Union Government”. It added that the “dangerous trend of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media must stop as it undermines our constitutional democracy”.
What Newslaundry said
In his elaborate statement, the Newslaundry CEO said the portal conducts its business “honestly and with integrity”.
“We have nothing to hide and have done everything by the book and are not in any breach or violation of any law,” Sekhri said in the statement posted on his Twitter handle. He added his organisation would cooperate with the I-T department.
Speaking about the “survey”, he said he was told by the I-T team that the rules don’t allow for him to contact his lawyers.
“They searched and looked through all computer devices at the premises. My personal mobile phone, laptop and a couple of office machines were taken control of and all the data on them downloaded by the IT team. In my understanding this (taking all data from my personal laptop and mobile phone) violates my fundamental right to privacy. No signed hash value of the data copied was provided to me,” his statement said.
“There was no clarity on what are the specific charges that they are investigating. I answered some 25-30 questions which were mostly related to our funding, investors, how I know the investors and generic questions about who all work at Newslaundry,” he told ThePrint Saturday about the “survey”.
“These are the same questions that I had answered when a team visited our office on June 30. I am not sure what they were looking for,” he added, referring to another I-T visit at the Newslaundry office earlier this year.
What Newsclick said
Newsclick Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha said around 30 employees and support staff were in the office throughout the “survey” that lasted from noon to midnight.
Their phones were “temporarily seized, and they were not allowed to use their computers and work”, said the statement, adding that this wasn’t the first time that they were targeted by government agencies.
“The offices of Newsclick, as well as the residences of Prabir Purkayastha and other persons associated with us, were also raided earlier this year by the Enforcement Directorate. Newsclick has cooperated with the investigations by the Enforcement Directorate and Economic Offences Wing, and handed over all the documents they have asked for from time to time,” the statement said.
“The raid yesterday appears to relate to the same false and unfounded allegations being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and the Economic Offences Wing, Delhi Police. We have these allegations challenged in the Courts. These investigations by various agencies, and these selective allegations, are attempts to stifle the independent journalism of media organisations – including Newsclick. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, a right central to our work,” it added.
What the Editors Guild said
The Editors Guild of India expressed concern about Sekhri’s mobile data being taken, saying such “indiscriminate seizure of journalist’s data”, which could include sensitive information, “is in violation of free speech and freedom of press”.
“It is learnt that the IT team made clones of Sekhri’s mobile and laptop, as well as some other office machines, and no hash value was given to them. This is clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under section 133A of the Income Tax Act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists. It is also in violation of procedures laid out in the Information Technology Act, 2000,” the statement said.
“The Guild demands that great care and sensitivity be shown in all such investigations so as to not undermine the rights of journalists and media organisations. Further, to ensure that such investigations are conducted within the prescribed rules and that they don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media,” it added.