At Delhi event, NewsClick founder on ‘transformation after arrest’, meetings in jail

Prabir Purkayastha said he’s a ‘proud part of the media which is ready to fight for freedom of expression’.

WrittenBy:Sumedha Mittal
Prabir Purkayastha at the event today in Delhi.

At about 5 pm today, while the temperature in Delhi touched 37 degrees Celsius, the open space on the ground floor of Delhi’s Press Club of India thronged with people. They’d all turned up to attend “Freedom of Expression in Today’s India” in solidarity with NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha.

Purkayastha had been arrested by the Delhi police in October 2023 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. On May 15, the Supreme Court declared his arrest illegal and ordered his release. Purkayastha stepped out of jail that night after spending over seven months in jail.

Wearing a pink linen shirt and black denim pants, the 75-year-old was surrounded by fellow journalists. 

“How does it feel?” one asked.

“Where? In jail or here?” he laughed. “Of course it feels great! Jail is not easy for oldies like me.”

The event was organised by the Press Club of India, Digipub News India Foundation (of which Newslaundry is a member), Indian Women’s Press Corps and Delhi Union of Journalists. It started around 6 pm, as more attendees trickled in as well as former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur. Reporters from newspapers and digital media outlets occupied the first row; no one from mainstream TV channels had arrived to cover the event.

Gautam Lahiri, the newly elected president of the PCI and moderator of the evening, kicked off proceedings by announcing that 26 press groups had, the day before, unveiled a draft Media Transparency (And Accountability) Bill. He urged attendees to go through the bill and pass on their opinions “so it can be improved and then presented before the Parliament”.

Lahiri also talked about how journalists associated with NewsClick had their electronic devices seized by the Delhi police during Purkayastha’s arrest last year. He said the media fraternity had written to the Chief Justice of India “but we did not hear back”.

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“Then we wrote to the President of India. Not only did she accept the letter but she also wrote to the home ministry and information ministry to take appropriate action and reply to us,” he said. “But these days, the government of India does not listen to the President of India.”

Amidst tumultuous applause, Lahiri stepped back and passed the mic to others – TK Raj Laxmi from IWPC, SK Pandey from DUJ, and Abhinandan Sekhri from Digipub – for short speeches. 

Journalist Ashish Vaig, based in London, also spoke briefly, said he “travelled 5,000 miles” to be at the event. “I am here to express solidarity to all journalists who have suffered, some prominently, others silently, in the last 10 years…I am not here to mince my words. In the past 10 years, we have not had a central government but a criminal enterprise.”

Justice Lokur then rose and addressed the gathering. He talked about recent “assaults on freedom of speech and expression”, citing the death of Stan Swamy in jail and the arrest of journalist Siddique Kappan.

“What did he propose to do? He only wanted to write a story,” he said of Kappan. “The treatment that was meted out to him was inhumane. In the sense that his mother was dying but he was not allowed to meet her. Then she passed away without [him] meeting her. This is the way of suppressing journalists. Arrest is one thing. These are the ways freedom of speech and expression has been suppressed.”

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Scenes from the event today at the Press Club.

Justice Lokur said that journalists were also under attack by “targeting people associated with them”.

“Not only are they also becoming a victim of state oppression, but their personal belongings are being taken away – which are intimately tied to their profession. We have heard about cell phones and laptops being taken. Today, it is very difficult for anybody to work without them,” he said. 

He added, “We have a fundamental right to silence. The constitution says that you have the right to be silent, which is if the police asks you a question you have the right to say that ‘I am sorry, I don’t want to answer that question’...The police might tell the court that the accused is not cooperating, therefore bail should not be granted. But that, in my mind, is a clear violation of the fundamental right to stay silent. Please remember this.”

Purkayastha then spoke, expressing his gratitude to everyone who had stood by him. He did not comment on the NewsClick case as the matter is sub-judice. 

“In 2009, I started NewsClick with an idea that I should show my friends in the activist circle how to use a digital platform – that too cheaply,” he said. “I did not set myself up to start an alternate media. But slowly that became my primary work. So this is the transformation marked by my arrest.”

Purkayastha recalled his previous arrest under the government of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. He compared both his stints, saying it was “in some sense different, in some sense the same”.

“Democracy does not survive only because of courts and the press. It survives only because people believe in it. People want to act for it,” he said. “That is the spirit with which we have seen the rebirth of resistance of different kinds…It is the journalists from different kinds of platforms who keep up the spirit of people who need to know what is happening.”

Purkayastha also extended his solidarity to “all those who are not yet released”. “In the same jail, I met Khurram Parvez and Irfan Mehraj,” he said, noting that Kashmir is “really under the mass gagging of the media”.

“I am today a proud part of the media which, in different ways, is ready to fight for freedom of expression. I am proud to be associated with all of you,” he said.

When Newslaundry spoke to Purkayastha after the event and asked about his meeting with Kashmiri activists and journalists in jail, he said, “There were very few people in the jail with whom you can discuss politics with. They were really some of those people. We used to discuss history because that is a safe subject. But of course we also used to discuss UAPA, but they were also under UAPA and so was I.”

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