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Church leaders condemn arrest of Indian website editor

Say arrest over alleged Chinese funding is another example of how press freedom has been eroded in India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in his home state Gujarat on Sept. 26. Press freedom in India has plummeted since 2014 when Modi first came to power.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in his home state Gujarat on Sept. 26. Press freedom in India has plummeted since 2014 when Modi first came to power. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 04, 2023 09:42 AM GMT
Updated: October 04, 2023 09:48 AM GMT

Indian Church leaders have condemned the arrest of a news website editor and raids on the homes of several journalists under an anti-terror law, alleging Chinese funding.

Police in the national capital New Delhi arrested on Oct. 3  Prabir Purkayastha, editor-in-chief of Newsclick, and the portal’s human resources manager Amit Chakravarty under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

The same day, police searched 30 homes of people associated with the New Delhi-based English-language website, against which the pro-Hindu government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi filed a case in 2021, alleging foreign funding to disseminate “Chinese propaganda."

Those targeted in the dawn raids included occasional contributors, authors, journalists, satirists, historians and scientists. 

A total of 46 people were grilled by the Delhi police and the news portal’s office was shuttered.

The World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 161, in the bottom 20 among 180 nations. Press freedom in India has plummeted since 2014 when Modi first came to power. He completes a second term next year and is seeking a third in polls next year.

“The ruling fascist regime is terribly in despair,” said Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist based in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, in response to the arrests.

“The writing is on the wall and they [Modi’s party] are dead certain that we the people of India will vote them out of power in the coming elections,” the Jesuit priest told UCA News on Oct. 3.

Prakash said that the ruling regime is frightened.

It is not surprising therefore that “they resort to strong-arm tactics,” he added.

Father Savarimuthu Shankar, spokesperson of the Delhi archdiocese, said, “Anything that goes against freedom of expression is not a good sign for the country.”

Modi often claims that “India is the mother of all democracies” but acts differently when it comes to media freedom, Shankar added.

However, Anurag Thakur, federal minister of information and broadcasting, defended the government, saying, "If anyone has committed anything wrong, search agencies are free to carry out investigations." 

The case against the website is based on a report by The New York Times which in August said that Newsclick was financed by US millionaire Neville Roy Singham, saying it "sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points," claims Singham rejected.

The report accused Singham of working closely with Beijing and of "financing its propaganda worldwide."

New Delhi and Beijing are bitter rivals and have a long-running border dispute, with a deadly Himalayan clash in 2020 sending diplomatic relations into a deep freeze.

India plays a major role in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US administration, which is aimed at containing China.

The World Press Freedom Index, 2023, released on May 2 by Reporters Without Borders said that violence against journalists and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in India.

The Press Club of India has tweeted that it was “deeply concerned” about the multiple raids.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called the raids "an act of sheer harassment and intimidation".

The United States, which has a growing relationship with India despite concerns about democratic backsliding, called for respect for the media but declined to weigh in on reports of Newsclick's relationship with China.

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