Ordinarily, searches and seizures are the legitimate starting point of an investigation, done on the basis of prior information. But the ED’s raids in the office of independent digital news platform NewsClick, and in the residence of its promoter and editor-in-chief, have invited justified condemnation from organisations representing the media. There is every likelihood that this operation is linked to the platform’s in-depth coverage of ongoing protests as well as the various struggles of the people and the grassroot organisations that represent them. Ostensibly arising from an FIR registered by the Delhi police some months ago, the ED is said to be investigating alleged money-laundering to the tune of ₹30 crore. Not much is known about the nature of the police case, but the agency is empowered by the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act to investigate if the proceeds of crime related to a ‘predicate offence’ have been laundered. Whether such a primary offence has been established or not, and if so, whether NewsClick is in any way linked to it, is unclear. However, in the light of the manner in which the central agency is wont to enter the scene to investigate both real and imaginary allegations against anyone vocally critical of the government, it is difficult to brush aside the suspicion that the website is being targeted for its coverage of the farmers’ agitation as well as last year’s country-wide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
The present regime’s record is quite dismal when it comes to the obvious use of central agencies such as the CBI, ED, IT and even the NIA, to rein in dissenting voices. It is unfortunate that specialised agencies are allowing themselves to be used as force multipliers in political battles against sections of the Opposition. Amidst claims that there are varying kinds of conspiracies against the government and India, it is no surprise that relentless journalistic focus on protests, which are basically steps taken in pursuit of redress for public grievances, is inviting repressive action. Laws that are serious in nature and ought not to be invoked lightly are being used with abandon against those seen to have invited the establishment’s wrath. This may explain the frequency with which the offence of sedition is being invoked for speeches and writings, while allegations of anti-national activity peddled by those groomed to build such narratives lead to action under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In other instances, cases of promoting social enmity or outraging religious sentiments are also slapped selectively to ‘discipline’ comedians and script-writers. The Supreme Court’s intervention has protected prominent journalists from arrest for defamation for tweets that turned out to be incorrect. It no more behoves a responsible and responsive government to dismiss criticism of its treatment of dissenters, including journalists who do not agree with it, as motivated or inspired by foreign elements.
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