Interview: This is government telling journalists what it is capable of doing: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta on NewsClick, raids

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a journalist who serves as a consultant to NewsClick was questioned by Delhi Police, speaks to South First about it.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Oct 05, 2023 | 1:51 PMUpdatedOct 05, 2023 | 5:30 PM

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

In the early hours of Tuesday, 3 October, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell conducted raids on 30 locations linked to the online news portal NewsClick and its associated journalists. The investigation revolves around the alleged receipt of illicit funds from China.

They confiscated their phones, laptops, and work-related materials as part of the probe into alleged Chinese funding. These raids occurred simultaneously at residences in Delhi, Noida, and Ghaziabad early on Tuesday.

Later in the day, the authorities arrested NewsClick founder and chief editor Prabir Purkayastha and office administrator Amit Chakravarty.

One of the many individuals questioned by the Delhi Police was senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who serves as a consultant to NewsClick. He sat for an interview with South First to narrate the events of the day. Excerpts from the conversation.

Related: Targeted since 2021, not one charge sheet filed, says NewsClick

Q. A response that you gave to the media as you were being driven away last evening intrigued us quite a bit. Is there a particular reason that you chose to use those words to describe the prime minister?

A. You know, the Delhi Police personnel arrived at my home at about 6.30 am and they were there for about two hours. Then I went along with them to the office of the Special Cell in Delhi. We must have (reached) there around 10 o’clock, or maybe a little earlier. And I was in that place all the way through till about 6 pm.

There were eight different individuals from the rank of sub-inspector, inspector, additional commissioner of police, all the way up to the deputy inspector general of police who spoke to me, questioned me, and you might even say interrogated me.

As I was walking out (after all this), there were dozens of camera persons who were waiting for the sound bite. Look, I am who I am. I have spent 46 years as a journalist. I’m accredited to the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India. A whole lot of questions were asked of me. The same questions were asked over and over again (by the police as well as the media).

And then, after all these questions were asked, I said the same thing in Hindi (to the media) and I was sort of mentally and physically exhausted by that time. I was getting into my vehicle when another one of these same guys was literally thrusting their microphones in my face.

So I said, okay, what’s the question you want to ask me? Let me give you an answer. I said Modi is a great man. Modi is akin to God. Little did I realise that that little clip of me sitting in a vehicle saying all these things would go viral.

I had literally been with the cops from 6.30 am till about 6 pm. I mean, they were very kind to me, a hundred times they asked, you want tea, you want coffee, you want something to eat, something to drink?

Q. You ended up answering the next question I intended to ask, which was to elaborate on what exactly transpired yesterday. But I will not take away from the kindness of the Delhi police who were so gracious in offering you so many cups of tea.

A. I just hope that they will be equally kind to Prabir Purkayastha who’s been remanded to police custody for seven days as we talk. I hope they’re equally kind to NewsClick’s person in the Human Resources Department, Amit Chakravarty, who is physically challenged. I hope they’re as kind to them as they were to me.

Q. Not taking away from their kindness. I would really like to know if they also follow due process. Was there a search warrant? Since they also seized electronics, including phones, laptops. Did they give you a memo?

A. I frankly don’t know what is the due process when an FIR is lodged under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). I really don’t. If they had a search warrant, they didn’t show it to me. When they asked me for my personal electronic devices, notably my mobile phone, I said, I won’t give it to you unless you give it to me in writing.

So the inspector asked, why don’t you come with us to the special cell unit of the Delhi Police which is on Lodhi Road? We reached there at about 10 am. Before I handed over my mobile phone to them, I said, give it to me in writing. So they gave me a document which is called a seizure memo, a handwritten document.

Maybe I’m privileged or maybe they were extremely nice to me. They returned both my phone and the SIM.

I also said, why don’t you give me the hash value of that? I said this is not the first time the data from my phone has been extracted. When the Pegasus investigation was on, my phone was forensically examined… twice in Europe and Canada, and once in Delhi, once in Kolkata

The short point is, I said, I wanted the hash value because I don’t want a situation where you plant something in my phone which wasn’t there.

What is the due process under the UAPA? You should actually speak to a legal expert on the subject. It is arguably the most draconian piece of legislation in the country. So, the way I look at it, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which is under the Ministry of Finance, had raided the offices of NewsClick in February of 2021. After that, the Income Tax Department came, the Economic Offences Wing of the police came. Then NewsClick got a stay against what is described as coercive action.

Now that the trial is scheduled to begin, all this has happened.

They couldn’t get them under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), or the Income Tax Act. So you finally got him in police custody for seven days under UAPA.

Related: Delhi Police arrest 2 after raids linked to ‘NewsClick’

Q. Do you look at this as harassment, intimidation of journalists, and a challenge to the free press?

A. I do see this as a kind of harassment. I see this as intimidation. You picked up people, freelance journalists who have written just a few articles for the portal. You picked up a designer who’s learning on the job, you picked up camera persons, you picked up all kinds of people. I wonder what the purpose is.

And the only conclusion I can draw is that the UAPA has been misused or used to intimidate. We know what happened to Father Stan Swamy, but this has never happened to journalists. And I mean, let’s look at some of the facts of the case. I haven’t seen the FIR. I don’t know if others have seen the FIR launched on the 17 August. So almost a month-and-a-half later, all these things happen.

It is sending a chilling message to all journalists that this is what the government is capable of doing.

The only plausible explanation is that those in positions of power and responsibility don’t want independent, critical journalism to continue in this country. That’s the conclusion I can draw.

Q. Since these raids, there has been a clear divide in the response within the journalism fraternity. Some believe it’s an attack on press freedom, while others wonder why they should support those accused of having ties to an alleged adversary, despite the Indian government not officially designating China as an enemy state. From your perspective, how do you view the way the Indian journalism community has reacted to these raids, and do you find it disappointing?

A. It is disappointing. I’ve been a journalist for 46 years. Journalists are not known for their solidarity, and often, they are their own worst enemies. There’s a noticeable lack of unity among many journalists.

Regarding the media’s polarisation, it’s essential to acknowledge that Indian society is currently more polarised than in a very long time, not just along religious lines but also along political lines. A significant portion of my fellow journalists now seems to align with the government.

They are not posing challenging questions to those in power. Some journalists may be doing this due to ideological alignment with the ruling party, while others might feel they have no choice. In some cases, financial considerations, such as dependence on government advertising, play a role. The saying “he who pays the piper calls the tune” is apt here.

Interestingly, many Indian journalists are now more critical of the Opposition than the ruling party and seem reluctant to ask tough questions of those in power. Narendra Modi is the first and only Indian prime minister who has never held an unscripted press conference, where journalists can freely ask him questions.

He has selectively granted interviews to specific journalists, and even then, they often do not ask him tough follow-up questions.

I don’t recall seeing such a large section of the media so subservient to those in power since the 1970s when the emergency was imposed. So, yes, I am deeply disappointed with many aspects of the media, and I’m disheartened by the attitudes and actions of many colleagues in the profession. However, it’s important to note that not everyone falls into this category. Unfortunately, those who are independent and critical often face targeted actions, which is concerning.