The Indian Democracy is currently under severe attack by the ruling Government at the centre. The raids by the Delhi police on the staff of the NewsClick news portal and subsequent arrest of the founder editor Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakraborty on October 3 signal the arrival of an era when all norms of democracy and press freedom were violated to achieve the objective of the ruling establishment to curb dissent.
The NewsClick case shows how the central government agencies can convert a pending case in Delhi High Court on money laundering under PMLA rule into a case of conspiracy and terrorism under the draconian UAPA once it appeared that the allegations under PMLA might not be proved in the Court. This conversion is a dangerous development and this hurts at the very root of the current judicial system.
The fact is that the enforcement directorate (ED) has made allegations of money laundering under PMLA rules against the portal NewsClick and its founder editor Prabir Purkayastha and the case of ED is being heard in Delhi High Court since 2021. So far the hearings have not proved that NC violated the foreign funds laws. NC says that the RBI has found no violation and NC management has full faith in the judgment of the court. Without waiting for the judgement of the Delhi High Court, not ED, but Delhi police struck against the portal staff under a FIR lodged in August this year under UAPA. Nobody knew about this FIR till October 3. Now the case is not of money laundering, but under clauses of terrorism and conspiracy.
The ED has every right to take action under the PMLA rules against NC if they could prove in the court the violations of the official rules including the RBI guidelines, but they did not wait for the verdict since it was becoming apparent that the transactions were made as per existing laws of the country. The Government agencies could not therefore wait for the hearing to be completed, the task of teaching lessons to a prodigal portal was passed over to the Home Ministry from the Finance Ministry which controls ED officially.
This October 3 raids by the Delhi police following the locking of the office of the NC and the arrest of the editor are the culmination of the long list of attacks on the independence of the media which has been taking place in India during the last nine and half years of the rule of Narendra Modi. The muzzling of the independent voice of the media is expected to intensify as the Lok Sabha elections are nearing and the Prime Minister is determined to get his third consecutive term. The moment of truth for independent media is now.
The Constitution makers have talked of four pillars of our democracy- legislature, executive, judiciary and media. Media is the fourth pillar and all those who believe in democracy feel that each pillar will complement the others to make India a vibrant democracy. This is the time when certainly, media can look to the other pillar judiciary to see whether the executive is functioning to strengthen the democracy or to subvert that. The letter sent by 18 media organisations of the country to the Chief Justice of India Dr. D Y Chandrachud is very relevant in this context. The CJI has always been a supporter for strengthening the fourth pillar of the Constitution. It was the CJI who said ‘ the press has a duty to speak truth to power and resent citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction and that India’s freedom will be safe as long as journalists can play this role without being chilled by a threat of reprisal.’
Yes, Dr Chandrachud, this is exactly what the ruling dispensation now is afraid of. They don’t allow the press to speak truth to power as you want. They get panicky when the journalists play their role without being chilled by a threat of reprisal. The ruling government and the party BJP want embedded media which you do not want. The journalists under attack on October 3 and 4 have been following the same principles which the CJI has been advocating. That is why the entire media in this country who are wedded to seeing press growing as the fourth pillar of the democracy, are looking to the CJI for intervention. The apex court should take up suo moto of the letter of the journalists bodies as the petition and discharge his role as the chief custodian of the Indian Constitution.
As the letter of the media bodies mention, the World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 161, in the bottom twenty of the 180 countries whose status it assesses. The fall has been immense and sharp since 2015. India is also the global internet shutdown capital, with by far the highest number of internet closures per year amongst all democracies. India has displayed record democratic backsliding, and the state of the press is a vital component of the deterioration. Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of India as a mother of democracy but in his rule of nearly a decade, the backsliding has accentuated. The Supreme Court under the CJI can rise to the occasion and play a historic role in reverting the present process and restore the vision on the press freedom which the Constitution makers held. (IPA Service)