By Elton Gomes
Media owner Raghav Bahl’s home and the Noida office of his digital news portal The Quint were raided Thursday morning by Income Tax officials. Soon thereafter, IT officers reached the Bangalore premises of The News Minute, a news website wherein Bahl has made an investment.
The Income Tax department said that the raids were part of an investigation in a case of alleged tax evasion. However, the conduct of the officials, especially in terms of visiting publications that have been critical of the Narendra Modi government, has raised some serious questions over the government trying to muzzle the Indian media.
Around 8 am on Thursday morning, more than a dozen officers from the IT department and the local police reached the Noida offices of the Quint. The officers said that they were there to “survey” the premises, a person present at that time said on the condition of anonymity, Scroll.in reported.
About an hour later, the officers said that they had a warrant under section 132 of the Income Tax Act. The warrant gave authorities permission to search the premises and seize account books and other documents of parties that are being investigated.
Poonam Aggarwal, an associate editor with the Quint, tweeted that the officers attempted to clone data from the computers of Bahl and Ritu Kapur, co-founder of Quintillion Media – Quint’s parent company. The Quint’s editorial director, Sanjay Pugalia, tweeted that the raids were a result of the “fearless and independent journalism”.
Later, around 10 am in Bangalore, five Income Tax officials and three policemen arrived at the offices of the News Minute, a website in which Quintillion Media has a stake.
“They came and they said that there is a survey on the Quint, and since they have invested in us, they’ll check the investments [as well as] our audits and accounts,” Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the News Minute said, Scroll.in reported.
An Income Tax source told India Today that the “searches are in connection with bogus long-term capital gain received by various beneficiaries. Along with Bahl, there are other three beneficiaries namely Kamal Lalwani, Anup Jain and Abhimanyu whose premises are also covered.” Officials reportedly seized a few documents concerning the Quint’s financial transactions.
Raghav Bahl’s response
Bahl, in a statement, emphasized that his company was a “fully tax compliant entity,” and that it will “seek extremely strong recourse” if officials pick up any sensitive journalistic material.
Bahl said, “I have a matter of great concern to share with the Guild. While I was in Mumbai this morning, dozens of IT officials descended on my residence and The Quint’s office for a “survey”. We are a fully tax compliant entity, and will provide all access to all appropriate financial documents. However, I have just spoken to the officer on my premises, one Mr Yadav, and requested him, strongly, to not try and pick up or see any other mail/document which is likely to contain very serious/sensitive journalistic material. If they do that, then we shall seek extremely strong recourse. I do hope the EG will back us on this, and thereby set a precedent for any such exercise that may happen on any other journalistic entity in the future. They should also not misuse their smartphones to take unauthorised copies of this material. I am now on my way back to Delhi. Warm regards. Raghav,” the News Minute reported.
Dhanya Rajendran, the News Minute’s editor-in-chief, said, “We are complying with the requests of the officers at our premises.”
Editors Guild, others condemn raids
Hours after the raids were conducted, the Editors Guild of India has expressed its concern.
“While the tax administration is within its rights to make inquiries in compliance with the relevant laws, it should not exercise those powers in a way that could be seen as an intimidation of the government’s critics,” the apex body comprising editors representing the media industry said in a statement.
The Editors Guild said it is “perturbed over” Bahl’s statement that he had spoken to the officer on his premises and had strongly requested him to not try and pick up or view any mail or document that was likely to contain sensitive journalistic material.
“The Guild believes that motivated income-tax searches and surveys will seriously undermine media freedom and the government should desist from such attempts,” the Guild said in its statement.
Senior journalist and documentary film-maker, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who has been critical of the Modi government, said, “After Income Tax Department raids on Raghav Bahl’s home and offices of Quint in Noida, survey on the office of NewsMinute, Enforcement Directorate raids on Greenpeace India and Direct Dialogue Initiatives in Bengaluru, who is next on the list? Do you see the pattern?”
CBI raided NDTV’s Prannoy Roy
The Modi government has used raids as a tool of intimidation in the past as well. In June 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) searched the offices and homes of NDTV founder Prannoy Roy, after allegations of defrauding a bank. NDTV denied all allegations and condemned the raids as a “witch-hunt” to muzzle free speech.
Federal agents named Roy, his wife Radhika, and RRPR Holding Private Ltd, a private company linked to NDTV, among others, in a criminal case for allegedly causing losses to ICICI Bank.
Modi’s government and the media
The Modi government has had a tenuous relationship with the media. After Modi came to power, the government has made attempts to regulate online media. Considerable disruption in television signals has been caused to shows that have been critical of the Modi government.
Kalpana Sharma, in her article for Scroll.in, noted how media houses castigated former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his silence for numerous corruption scandals, but barely reported Prime Minister Modi’s silence on the rising mobocracy and cow vigilantism by members of the Saffron party.
Sharma pointed out to perhaps the most critical point during the Modi regime – that the Prime Minister has not addressed a single press conference is a telling example of his government’s unwillingness to face serious questions.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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