How Indian authorities ‘weaponised’ a New York Times report to target the press
NewsClick, a defiantly critical news site, has been in the Indian government’s sights over the past few years. But there was little to show after extensive financial probes – until the New York Times published a report which enabled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration to use the press to attack the press.
Shortly after breakfast time on Tuesday, October 3, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was outside his home in Gurgaon, a suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi, seeing his son off for the day when the police showed up at his place.
“Nine cops arrived at 6:30 in the morning,” recounted the renowned investigative journalist and writer in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “I was surprised. I asked them, why have you come? They said, we want to ask you a few questions.”
True to their word, the police did have relatively few questions. But they were repeated over 12 hours at two venues, according to Guha Thakurta.
After around two hours of questioning at his Gurgaon home, the veteran journalist was taken to the Delhi police’s Special Cell – the Indian capital’s counter-terrorism unit – and questioned again before he emerged around 6:30pm local time to a phalanx of news camera teams.
#WATCH | Delhi: Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta working as a consultant with NewsClick says, "Nine police personnel came to my home in Gurugram at 6:30 in the morning. They asked me various questions. I came with them voluntarily to the Special Cell of the Delhi Police. The… pic.twitter.com/kgWCR1iWSG
Guha Thakurta was among 46 people questioned during sweeping media raids that dominated the national news cycle, made international headlines, and sparked a series of condemnations from press freedom groups across the world.
The crackdown targeted NewsClick, an independent news site founded in 2009 known for its hard-hitting coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies. The list of those questioned included the NewsClick’s founder-editor, staff, former staffers, and freelance writers, as well as non-journalist contributors such as activists, a historian and a stand-up comedian. The police seized computers, mobile phones and documents during the raids.
After an entire day of questioning, NewsClick’s founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha and human resources chief Amit Chakravarthy were arrested under the country’s draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), also known as the “anti-terror law” in India. The two men remain in custody while the others were released by Tuesday night. NewsClick’s New Delhi office has been shut down and put under a police seal.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, India has been nosediving in the international press freedom rankings, settling at 161 out of 180 countries on the 2023 Reporters Without Borders index. Some high-profile cases of media clampdowns make the news; many more pass unnoticed outside human rights circles.
What makes the latest raids noteworthy though is that they are linked to a New York Times report on a global network receiving funds from US tech billionaire Neville Roy Singham, allegedly to publish Chinese propaganda. NewsClick was one of the news organisations named as funding recipient. The report did not suggest the Indian news site had committed any crime.
NewsClick has denied the allegations in the report. The news site maintains that it does not publish any news or information at the behest of any Chinese entity, nor does it take directions from Singham on its content. A police investigation into the site’s alleged Chinese funding is currently underway.
In its report, “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul”, the New York Times unravelled a shadowy network allegedly propagating Chinese government talking points by funding left-leaning organisations across the globe via US NGOs. “Years of research have shown how disinformation, both homegrown and foreign-backed, influences mainstream conservative discourse. Mr. Singham’s network shows what that process looks like on the left,” noted the US daily.
But in India, the process of press clampdowns and intimidation of the left looks very different.
Years of assaults on liberal democratic values under the Modi administration have been propelled by a government discourse that vilifies dissenters as treasonous “anti-nationals”.
The labelling of journalists, academics, activists and opposition figures includes vague associations, without evidence, to minor Maoist peasant uprisings in rural India. Disgraced dissenters are then booked under repressive anti-terror laws bereft of basic safeguards, according to international rights groups.
On the international stage, though, many of the violations pass unnoticed – or more precisely, unmentioned – since India is viewed in the West as a counterweight to China.
But India is also heading to critical general elections next year. As Modi makes a bid for a third term, there are fears that his campaign will once again instrumentalise deteriorating ties with a neighbouring country to whip up a nationalist wave. In an ironic twist, the Modi government’s weaponisation of a report by a leading US daily – functioning under press freedoms enshrined in a mature democracy – is now threatening the very values that the West professes to uphold.
Same questions asked again – and again
The scale and planning of Tuesday’s raids sent an immediate signal across India that the state’s investigation of NewsClick – which has dragged on for more than two years without any charges – had gone up a notch.
“What happened is unprecedented. We’ve seen the police take coordinated action across the national capital region and also outside Delhi. Literally hundreds of police participated, they were summoned very early in the morning or probably late the previous night,” said Guha Thakurta.
The police's questions appeared to show little understanding of the role of journalists in a democracy. “I was asked if I was an employee of NewsClick. I said no, I’m a consultant,” he explained.
The veteran journalist was then asked if he had covered a series of recent anti-government protests, including a farmers' strike and demonstrations against a controversial citizenship law. “They were very polite. But the fact is, they kept asking the same set of questions. They were asked by different people, different officials, at various levels,” recounted Guha Thakurta.
Condemnations from press rights groups followed immediately, with the Press Club of India saying it was “deeply concerned” over the raids and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calling it “an act of sheer harassment and intimidation”.
In Washington DC, a State Department spokesperson was asked if the US was aware of concerns about NewsClick’s China ties alleged by the New York Times.
“We are aware of those concerns and have seen that reporting,” Vedant Patel told reporters, adding that he could not comment on the veracity of the claims. “Separately,” he noted, “the US government strongly supports the robust role of the media globally, including social media, in a vibrant and free democracy, and we raise concerns on these matters with the Indian government, with countries around the world.”
There are no known legal proceedings in the US against Singham based on the New York Times report. In India, commentators note that even if the funding allegations against NewsClick turn out to be true, any Chinese funding of an investment by a listed US company in a business venture is legal.
Social media sites meanwhile are awash with links to news reports on Modi’s private fund, the PM CARES Fund, receiving funding from Chinese companies.
Investigating Adani and stories untouched by Indian media
The questioning of NewsClick freelancers, editorial consultants and contributors – who are not responsible for funding or financial decisions – has raised eyebrows, since many have done in-depth reporting on issues that are either ignored or superficially covered by the country’s mainstream media.
Guha Thakurta, for instance, is considered one of India’s leading, and certainly bravest, investigative journalists. A former editor of the once-prestigious policy journal Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Guha Thakurta resigned from the post in 2017 following differences with the publisher after he co-authored an article on the Adani Group.
The conglomerate, led by Modi-ally Gautam Adani, was the subject of a high-profile investigation by US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research, which accused the group of using opaque funds to invest in its own stocks. The company denies any wrongdoing. Adani denies any improper relationship with the Indian prime minister.
Guha Thakurta was the only Indian journalist whose work was mentioned in the Hindenburg report. The 68-year-old journalist is also the author of the book, “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis”, which investigated irregularities by the Ambani business dynasty, which also has close links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Paranjoy [Guha Thakurta] is the only person in the Indian media doing any serious investigation of the Adani Group,” said Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist and former leader of a leftist political party. “He has nothing to do with Chinese propaganda. He was questioned because he’s refusing to be a propagandist for the Indian government.”
Krishnan was under the spotlight last year when she wrote an article chastising the Indian left for supporting Modi’s neutral position on the Ukraine war. In her latest piece, published on Friday, Krishnan slammed the New York Times for failing to provide context in its coverage and ignoring her warnings that the Modi administration would use the Chinese funding allegations to crack down on NewsClick.
In its response to Krishnan’s article, published in independent Indian news site Scroll, the New York Times said it “published a thoroughly reported story showing the [Singham] network’s ties to Chinese interests. We would find it deeply troubling and unacceptable if any government were to use our reporting as an excuse to silence journalists.”
Krishnan is not mollified by the response. “The New York Times story is being weaponised by the Indian government,” explained Krishnan. “Because it’s the New York Times, the government is able to ride on its credibility to create a hysteria, a frenzy that this is evidence of journalists funded by China.”
Funding probes give way to terrorism questioning
The terrorist allegations following Tuesday’s raids are a new, disturbing twist to the Indian state’s ongoing NewsClick probes.
Since 2021, the news site has been investigated by numerous government agencies, including the finance ministry’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Delhi police’s Economic Offences Wing and the income tax department.
After more than two years, none of the enforcement agencies have filed money laundering complaints or legal charges against NewsClick.
By invoking the anti-terror UAPA in its NewsClick investigations, the government has increased its capacity to legally harass and silence a small, underfunded news site, according to experts.
But in a statement released after the raids, NewsClick vowed to keep up the fight to survive. “We have full faith in the courts and the judicial process. We will fight for our journalistic freedom and our lives in accordance with the Constitution of India,” said the organisation.
‘The China connection’
As the NewsClick case looks set to go into the courts, the ruling BJP is already scoring political points off the controversy.
The politicisation started just days after the New York Times report was published, when a BJP parliamentarian claimed, without providing evidence, that China was financing NewsClick as well as the opposition Congress party.
On Tuesday, as the police were rounding up Guha Thakurta and dozens of others, the BJP was already linking NewsClick with Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi.
“Chinese Gandhi” said a BJP post on X (formerly known as Twitter) displaying overlapping circles representing the opposition party, NewsClick and China.
Anti-China sentiment is rising exponentially in India, according to the Pew Research Center, firing up a Hindu nationalist base that does not take kindly to signs of New Delhi’s weakness on foreign policy. In the lead-up to India's last general elections in 2019, Indian air strikes on Pakistan just months before the vote swept Modi to a landmark victory.
Krishnan hopes the China funding allegations do not turn into an election issue ahead of the 2024 vote. “I trust that the Modi government will not succeed in using this in its favour as an election issue because everyone in India can see is that this is an unprecedented crackdown on journalism,” she said. “I think the election issue will be the crackdown on journalists, and not allegations of China funding.”
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