Police in Delhi have raided the premises of a news website known for its fierce criticism of the Indian government, over a retracted article about a politician in charge of the ruling party’s social media campaigns.
Officers arrived at the homes of several editors of the Wire in the middle of the night and seized their laptops and phones. They also searched the website’s office in the capital.
They were acting on a complaint by Amit Malviya, the head of the social media division of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), who had accused the Wire of publishing a fake story that tarnished his reputation.
The Wire’s report alleged that Malviya used special privileges given to him by Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, to take down posts critical of the BJP.
Malviya said his ability to do his job had been damaged. “They [the stories] vitiated the atmosphere and severely dented relationships and trust built over years in order for me to carry out the functions of my responsibility,” Malviya said.
The Wire discovered after publication that a researcher had falsified documents used in the story. It acknowledged the error, retracted the story and acknowledged the need for more stringent cross-checking by independent experts.
The Wire filed a complaint of its own against the freelance researcher, Devesh Kumar, for supplying it with fabricated material. The website’s editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, said on Tuesday that Kumar had confessed to fabricating the evidence.
The raids were criticised by journalists and opposition politicians, who for years have accused the government of trying to muzzle or control the media.
Critics of Narendra Modi’s government say freedom of expression has been severely restricted since he came to power in 2014, with much of the mainstream media acting almost as government cheerleaders. This has left only a few news channels and publications that function independently.
Suhasini Haidar, a journalist, described the raid as “thinly veiled intimidation”. A spokesperson for the opposition Congress party tweeted: “Modi govt’s move on every free media voice: stifle, suppress, subjugate, strangle … nation has turned into a police state.”
An editorial on the Citizen, another news website, stressed the need for journalists to exercise responsibility and accountability, but criticised the raid. “Using the police to raid the homes of the senior editors is unacceptable and a clear infringement of the long-established norms concerning the media. This amounts to intimidation and is action used by governments to muzzle the media by spreading fear and terror,” it said.
Press freedom bodies have also condemned a growing trend of journalists being prevented from leaving the country. In the latest example, a Kashmiri photojournalist said last month she had been barred from taking a flight to New York, where she was due to receive a Pulitzer prize. Sanna Irshad Mattoo, 27, was in a team of Reuters photographers who had won a Pulitzer for feature photography for their coverage of the coronavirus crisis in India.
It was the second time that Mattoo had been stopped from travelling abroad. In July she was stopped by officials while trying to take a flight to Paris, where she was meant to take part in a book launch and an exhibition displaying her photos from Kashmir.
In the latest World Press Freedom index, published by Reporters Without Borders in May, India fell to 150th out of 180 countries, down from 142nd the previous year and 133rd in 2016.