In September 2022, Paojel Chaoba, the editor of daily Frontier Manipur, was summoned by the National Investigation Agency, as part of the agency’s probe into Manipur journalist ’s alleged links with insurgents.
“I had absolutely no links to this case and was called on the whims of the investigators,” said Chaoba, who has faced arrests, , and detentions in the past. “This was a calculated move to twist my arms. We are a very independent news organisation,” said the journalist, who was questioned twice – once for 30 minutes and again for six hours at the NIA office in Manipur.
Last year, the Indian Express reported that there has been a 4-fold in ED cases since 2014 against politicians. Around 95 percent are from the opposition parties, which have repeatedly the BJP government of misusing central agencies to target opponents.
But it is not just opposition leaders who are facing the wrath of central agencies. Since 2018, there have been at least 44 incidents of cases, summons, or notices to media houses and journalists by central agencies. Nine of these were linked to the income tax department, 15 to the Enforcement Directorate, and 20 involving the NIA.
These are, however, not exhaustive figures.
While a majority of the cases are against journalists and media organisations that have a more independent stance, top executives from media companies seen as pro-government – such as Times Group publisher BCCL and the India Today Group – have also made it to the list.
Kashmir, which saw a slew of cases by the state agencies as well NIA notices, also saw the I-T department slap at least five notices in five years to local newspaper Kashmir Times – which has been targeted by state authorities in the past and has been critical in its reportage on the current regime.
“It keeps us exhausted because we are just running to court all the time to fight it. It has become difficult for us to operate,” Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the newspaper, told Newslaundry.
A 2010 case, which had been settled in court, was reopened by the tax department in 2020 after linking it to a 2013 case. Kashmir Times subsequently received three notices in 2020, one in 2021, and one in 2022.
“I have been running to court almost daily since 2020. Sure, some of the cases against some journalists may be genuine, but by and large that’s not the case. And the problem is you are proven guilty before trial,” said Prabodh Jamwal, editor of Kashmir Times and Bhasin’s husband.
Since 2018, the tax department has acted against at least nine news organisations.
It started with a 22-hour-long search at the offices and houses of Quint founders Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kumar. A survey by the IT department was also conducted at The News Minute office in Bengaluru, since Quintillion – the Quint’s parent firm – is an investor in the organisation.
In 2020, Theo Connect, which is the parent company of online portal HW News Network, was raided in Mumbai. The search went on for about 50 hours. While the tax department hasn’t filed a case, they have continued sending notices to the news organisation, Newslaundry has learnt.
Newslaundry, too, was surveyed twice by the IT department in 2021, and has continued to receive notices from them – 34 so far.
In November 2022, a Delhi court a complaint by the IT department against Newslaundry CEO Abhinandan Sekhri and others. The I-T department had accused Newslaundry of willingly attempting to evade tax, and preparing a bogus valuation report. However, additional chief metropolitan magistrate Anurag Thakur had concluded that no criminal conspiracy of any kind had been hatched by the accused persons.
The court concluded that there was no attempt to evade tax as no action – such as not disclosing the allotment of shares at premium in the accounts or financial statements or “wrong entry” in the accounts, balance sheet and income tax return” – was taken by the company. The court also held that all the information in the complaint was already disclosed in Newslaundry’s account books.
The same year, tax sleuths carried out multiple raids at Dainik Bhaskar offices in Bhopal, Ahmedabad, and Jaipur, in July. Months before the raids, Dhainik Bhaskar’s reportage had stood out for exposing the government’s Covid management.
Raids were also conducted at the offices of Bharat Samachar, a Lucknow-based TV news channel in July 2021. The IT department also “surveyed” Newsclick premises for 12 hours in September 2021.
However, the highest amount of media attention was grabbed by the tax surveys in February this year at the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai over alleged tax evasion. The move came a month after the BBC aired a documentary that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In May 2020, a Guwahati-based digital journalist, Manash Baruah, was called in by the NIA in connection with a case linked to politician-activist Akhil Gogoi, about the CAA protests that had taken place in Assam in 2019. According to him, he was interrogated for 6 hours by three officers.
“They asked me what’s my relationship with Akhil and why I speak to him so much on the phone. I told them that I’m a journalist and he’s an activist and we speak about stories. But they said that we shouldn’t talk,” he alleged, claiming that he was threatened.
NIA has taken action against at least 20 journalists since 2018.
In 2021, in the midst of the farmers protests, at least 12 journalists in Punjab had received notices – most via WhatsApp – to appear before the NIA. This was related to a case about Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who is associated with banned outfit Sikhs for Justice.
“Their main motive for calling me was because I was reporting on the farmers' protest in a manner different from the mainstream media,” said Baltej Pannu, who was a freelance journalist at the time. “I was showing through my reports how this isn’t just a Sikh protest, this is a farmers protest. I’ve lived in Canada in the past and always been outspoken against Khalistanis, so I was very surprised when they called me.”
Meanwhile, in Manipur, at least three journalists were summoned by the NIA last year over a into alleged militant links.
In August last year, local journalist organisations protested over the NIA’s alleged interference in the media community. They also wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Manipur Governor La Ganesan, and the Press Council of India about the “intimidation and harassment” meted out to Wangkhemcha Samjai, one of the three journalists who was summoned by the NIA for questioning.
Rinku Khumukcham, editor of Imphal Times, was also summoned. “I was asked to appear as a witness but when I went there, I was treated like I was an accused. They were summoning us with the intention to intimidate us,” he alleged, adding that he was repeatedly asked about alleged links with insurgents.
In Kashmir, the NIA has acted against at least three journalists and a media house since 2020.
In 2020, the Greater Kashmir office was raided by the NIA at multiple locations, in connection with a terror funding case. In 2021, photo journalist Manan Gulzar Dar was arrested by the agency for his alleged role in a militant conspiracy.
In 2022, founder of the Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, was booked in a case by the NIA. And in March this year, journalist Irfan Mehraj was arrested by the agency in an alleged terror funding case.
After a three-day search by the I-T department in February, the Enforcement Directorate stepped in last month to file a case against BBC India for alleged violations of foreign exchange rules. Newslaundry has learnt that at least six employees of the organisation have also been called in for questioning at the directorate, including a BBC India director.
The agency has taken action against at least 15 journalists and media houses over the last five years – ranging from raids to money laundering cases to summons.
In 2018, the ED registered a money laundering case against journalist Upendra Rai, who has now moved on and started a new television channel Bharat Express this year.
In 2019, the ED filed its fourth chargesheet in the AgustaWestland case, and named former Indian Express journalists Raju Santhanam, Manu Pubby and Shekhar Gupta. Gupta, who now heads Print, had responded to the ED’s allegations – about being influenced to tone down an Indian Express article – as “100% untruth, laughable, and utterly preposterous”.
The same year, the ED registered a money laundering case against media baron Raghav Bahl, the founder of Quint. In 2021, the Enforcement Directorate raided the office of online news portal Newsclick.
“The process is the punishment,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who, due to his association as a regular contributor and his position as consultant with Newsclick, was summoned by the agency after the raids. “I carried hundreds of papers and the bank statements of the last 6 years. It took hours.”
A few months later, the Directorate filed a prosecution complaint against journalist Siddique Kappan, based on an FIR registered by the UP police. Kappan was already in jail for five months by the time this case was registered.
The same year, India Today CFO Dinesh Bhatia was also summoned by the ED for questioning over the alleged TRP manipulation case.
In August 2021, the ED also registered a case against West Bengal journalist Suman Chattopadhyay, who was the editor of Ei Samay, a Times Group newspaper. Chattopadhyay was chargesheeted as part of the ED’s probe into the Saradha Ponzi scam. The journalist was earlier arrested in 2018 by the CBI for a “chit fund scam” involving a company called I-Core, and was in jail for over 400 days.
The ED also arrested freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma in connection with a case under the Official Secrets Act and initiated a money laundering investigation on the basis of the Delhi Police FIR in July 2021. According to the ED probe, Sharma had supplied alleged confidential and sensitive information to Chinese intelligence officers, in exchange for remuneration. The agency said that Sharma had allegedly received cash through “hawala” by shell companies run by Chinese nationals.
In 2022, Kolkata TV founder Kaustav Ray, who was arrested by the CBI in 2018, was searched by the ED in August and December for allegedly cheating a consortium of banks headed by the Canara Bank. Kolkata TV is known to be close to the TMC and has an anti-BJP editorial position.
At least 2 top managers of the Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL) , the publishers of the Times Group, were questioned for alleged violations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act in July 2022. Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the company’s executive committee, and Himanshu Agarwal, the CFO, were questioned a few times at the agency headquarters in Delhi.
Last year also saw the ED raid multiple locations of the National Herald offices across India, in connection with the PMLA Act. Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were also questioned as they are linked to the company overlooking National Herald.
In October 2022, the ED also searched premises linked to Telugu daily Andhra Prabha and the India Ahead channel. The managing director of both the organisations, Gautam Mootha, was also questioned by the ED and CBI over alleged irregularities in Delhi’s liquor policy.
The same month, the central agency filed a prosecution complaint against Rana Ayub for allegedly receiving foreign contributions without registration under the FCRA.
This year, the Ranchi zonal office of the ED sent a notice to Ravindra Nath Tiwari, editor of Bharat Varta magazine. Tiwari had allegedly met Pankaj Mishra, who is accused of illegal stone mining in the state. The ED sought to know the details of the meeting.
‘Lost faith in ED’
Siddique Kappan, who was in jail for 850 days after being slapped with UAPA charges by the UP police and a money laundering case by the ED, had shared his experience in an interview with Newslaundry after he was released on bail.
The journalist said that the officer told him to write all the questions he was asked and his answers to them on A4 sheets. “They accused me of making and crowdfunding Justice for Hathras website, which I didn’t even know of until that day, and had never even opened to browse through. I told them so but they accused me of lying,” he said.
“I used to have some faith in ED as it is a premier agency that’s good. But that day, all my faith went away.”
Newslaundry reached out to the communication departments of central agencies to speak but did not receive a response. This report will be updated if a response to the questionnaires is received.