NewsClick crackdown: Journalists, resist the chilling effect on press freedom
By reporting on the Delhi riots and farmers' protests, the questioned journalists enhanced national security; they did not undermine it
The crackdown on NewsClick journalists, complete with arrests under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and seizure of phones and computers with no attempt to record the hash numbers of these devices at the time of seizure, is an attack on press freedom. It is the responsibility of all journalists to make sure this does not have a chilling effect on the expression of dissent in the country.
The use of UAPA would suggest that national security was at stake. Clamping down on press freedom in the name of national security is an old game. It is the duty of those who have carried out the arrests, searches and seizures to make clear what, in the reportage by NewsClick, has undermined national security.
Journalists picked up by the police were quizzed, reportedly, as to whether they had reported on the Delhi riots or on the farmers’ protests. These events undermined the credibility of the government at the Centre, not the security of the nation. On the contrary, the fact that sections of the Indian media reported on events such as the Delhi riots and the farmers’ agitation to reveal the truth, instead of merely regurgitating official propaganda, enhanced national security, to the extent that being perceived as a democracy distinct from China’s autocracy makes global support for India more readily forthcoming in its running tensions with China. Furthermore, media outlets that uniformly sing the government’s praise, as China’s state media does, undermine India’s national security by feeding a perception of India as an autocracy that does not deserve the solidarity of the world’s democracies.
Attribution of guilt via foreign funding
A principal charge against NewsClick has been that it received funds from a network linked to a Shanghai-based US millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who funds assorted leftist causes around the world, and, according to a New York Times report, works to spread the good word about China through the organisations his network funds. It is for official agencies to present credible proof of such foreign funding.
However, attribution of guilt via foreign funding is wholly irrational. Chinese capital originally funded many Indian startups, such as providers of payment solutions that make use of UPI (Unified Payment Interface of the National Payment Corporation of India). India presents to the world, with pride, such payment solutions as key components of India’s digital infrastructure. Money from Hong Kong’s Hutchison group played a major role in expanding India’s telecom network, before it sold its stake to Vodafone. Chinese phone makers have contributed crores of rupees to the PM Cares fund. The Chinese source of funding does not give any Chinese characteristics to India’s digital payment network, phone calls or the work of PM Cares.
But the case of the media is different, it may be argued. That is why foreign direct investment is restricted in news and current affairs. Is the cap on foreign investment any guarantee that a news outlet would shun bias in its working?
Consider a hypothetical case in which a foreign entity gives a letter of comfort to a bank with a global footprint for a loan sought by an Indian media operation. The bank, which has lucrative business dealing with the entity, would oblige with the loan. Without a single rupee of foreign direct investment, the foreign entity would be in a position to dictate the editorial policy of the media outlet in question.
What matters is what gets published
This is no secret. In fact, it is clear to anyone who monitors the media for foreign influences that what matters is what is published in the media, not who has funded the outlet or the nationality of the editor. Foreign funding is neither necessary nor sufficient for the funded media to show bias.
This does not mean that taking money from Chinese propaganda arms is harmless. To be seen to be impartial by the audience is as important as being impartial in practice.
The point being made is slightly different. Many think tanks and non-government organisations work in areas such as climate change and the energy transition, the impact of artificial intelligence, and so on. They tend to have links with foreign organisations; many receive support for specific projects and investigations. This is part of the globalised way of existence in today’s world. Should all their research output and publications based on them be damned and rejected because of foreign funding?
Those who carry out anti-national activity, whether propaganda or otherwise, whether at foreign bidding or otherwise, deserve to be shunned. To tar those who criticise the government as anti-national because of a foreign association is wrong and opportunistic.
Importance of hash number
A different matter is at stake, too. When the police take custody of electronic equipment, it is vital to ensure that these would not be tampered with, and evidence planted on them to incriminate the owners. The way to do that is to establish the hash number of an electronic device when it is seized and record that number. The hash number would vary if any effort were made to tamper with the contents of the equipment while in custody.
Neither the Criminal Procedure Code as it stands nor the revised version proposed by the government mandates the recording of the hash number of an electronic device as part of the protocol of seizing it. This must change, and all purported evidence gleaned from seized devices deemed to be unreliable unless established otherwise.
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)
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