Income Tax Department Conducts 'Surveys' at Offices of NewsClick, Newslaundry in Delhi

The I-T department had opened an investigation into NewsClick soon after the portal got relief from the Delhi high court in a case filed by the ED.
Sep 11, 2021 | The Wire Staff

New Delhi: The Income Tax Department on Friday morning conducted “surveys” at the south Delhi offices of two online media portals – NewsClick and Newslaundry. While employees of both organisations confirmed to The Wire that the officers were still at the scenes, no other information on the case was immediately available.

NDTV quoted I-T department officials as saying that Friday’s visits were ‘surveys’ and not ‘raids’. In a ‘survey’, officials can check an organisation’s financial records but not confiscate any items.

Sources at NewsClick told The Wire that the phones of all employees who were in office had been turned off, and those working from home were not able to establish contact with their colleagues.

A senior NewsClick employee who is working from home told The Wire, “There is a search and seizure order, so the phones of all persons present in the office have been seized, making it difficult to get any information.”

The Wire tried contacting NewsClick editor in chief Prabir Purkayastha and senior editor Pranjal, but their phones were switched off.

According to a Newslaundry employee who is present in the office, “So far the raid is only at one office of Newslaundry.” The person told The Wire that the news organisation’s “financial records are being checked”.

According to a source at Newslaundry, “When the I-T officials came in at 11:40 am today, there were around 20 people at the office in Sarvodaya Enclave. Everyone’s phones were confiscated, switched off and kept together on a table.” Around 3 pm, some employees were allowed to leave the office, the source added.

On September 11, Newslaundry released a statement which said that the IT team left at 12:40 am on Saturday. Abhinandan Sekhri, Newslaundry‘s CEO, said that he was not allowed to speak to his lawyer and he was asked to hand his phone over to the team.

Sekhri said that the media group will cooperate with the IT team and that it has nothing to hide. “We will cooperate in whatever way we are required to by law. We will also continue to practice public interest journalism which is why we exist,” he said.

The Wire wrote to the I-T department asking what the purpose of the visit to Newslaundry‘s office was. This article will be updated when a response is received.

NewsClick offices and editors’ residences were raided by the Enforcement Directorate in February this year. The ED said the raids were linked to an alleged money laundering case and the agency was probing funding the organisation had received from “dubious companies” abroad.

The portal and its editors had then approached the Delhi high court and got interim relief in the ED case, which is still continuing. A source at NewsClick told The Wire, “Soon after the Delhi high court order on the ED case, an I-T case was slapped on us. About two months ago, a team from the department came to our office to record the statements of editors Prabir Pukayastha and Pranjal.”

Several media groups had condemned the ED action, saying it was an attempt to silence critical journalism, and to intimidate those who do not toe the official line. Both NewsClick and Newslaundry have widely covered the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers’ protests and other issues which highlighted the Union governments alleged failures in recent times.

In July this year, the I-T department had raided premises linked to the Dainik Bhaskar Group and Bharat Samachar channel. The media group had said at the time that this was an intimidation tactic, given their in-depth coverage of the second COVID-19 wave.

The full statement issued by Newslaundry on September 11 is reproduced below.

A team from the Income Tax department came to the registered office of Newslaundry at approximately 12:15 in the afternoon on the 10th of September and conducted a “survey” under section 133 A as per the document shown to me. They left the premises at around 12:40 am on the 11th of September. I was told I cannot speak to my lawyer and have to hand over my phone. The team consisting of six or seven people was courteous and professional. I was told the law requires me to comply without seeking legal advice. 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. Even so, we will deal with that later.

This is the second visit by an IT team to my office, the first being in June. We had cooperated with them then too. We have nothing to hide and have done everything by the book and are not in any breach or violation of any law. We conduct our business honestly and with integrity. We have in the past given the IT authorities all documents related to our funding and accounts. We will cooperate in whatever way we are required to by law. We will also continue to practice public interest journalism which is why we exist. Our support comes from people who value public interest news and choose to subscribe to Newslaundry, not through government or corporate advertisements or PR exercises. We are proud of the model we chose and championed.

Note: This article was updated with IT officials’ remark that these were ‘surveys’ and not ‘raids’. It was updated again to include Newslaundry‘s statement on the ‘survey’.