Income Tax surveys were conducted on the premises of news portals Newslaundry and NewsClick in Delhi on Friday, with a senior department official telling The Indian Express that the surveys were related to alleged tax evasion.
“Surveys have been carried out in the case of both Newslaundry and NewsClick. The department’s officials conducted surveys on their premises in Delhi on charges of tax evasion,” the official said.
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— Abhinandan Sekhri (@AbhinandanSekhr) September 11, 2021
The Income Tax Act empowers officials to enter any premises of the assessee, such as residences, shops, factories or offices for a search and seizure operation. Surveys, which are conducted under Section 133A of the Income Tax Act, take place only on business premises. Surveys start during normal business hours, whereas searches can be conducted any time of the day. During surveys, I-T officials look into documents such as books of accounts, bank accounts, cash, stock and non-valuable documents.
Both organisations were paid a visit by IT officials on June 30 too, when notices were served to them. At the NewsClick office, statements of founder and Editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and Pranjal were taken at the time.
On Friday, IT officials reached the Newslaundry office at Sarvodaya Enclave around 11.40 am and were there until evening. Newslaundry was started by journalists Madhu Trehan and Abhinandan Sekhri, who also serves as its CEO.
Sources said around seven-eight IT officials also reached the NewsClick office at Saidulajab around the same time. Purkayastha, who was not in office at the time, was then summoned to the office.
In February, the Enforcement Directorate had raided the NewsClick office and homes of its editors.
Sources said IT officials made three trips to Purkayastha’s home Friday — once to pick him up, the second time to take his phone, and the third time to pick up the hard disk of the entire email dump made during the ED raids in February.
As of 5:30 pm in the evening, the raid was still underway with several employees, including Purkayastha and Pranjal, inside the premises.
Sources said the mobile phones of those present inside had been taken away during the survey. Purkayastha and Pranjal’s phones were switched off when The Indian Express tried to contact them for comments.
Apart from IT and ED, NewsClick is also being probed by the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing.
The Delhi High Court had in June directed the ED to not take any coercive action against PPK NewsClick Studio Private Limited and Purkayastha. In July, the court had granted interim protection from arrest to Purkayastha and NewsClick’s Editor Pranjal in the case registered by the Delhi Police. The same month, Purkayastha had also got interim protection from arrest in the ED case.
The interim protections continue as applications of the editors seeking anticipatory bail and NewsClick’s petitions seeking quashing of the cases registered by the ED and Delhi Police remain pending. In August, the court questioned the Delhi Police for opposing their anticipatory bail pleas despite the RBI’s statement that PPK NewsClick had not violated any FEMA regulations.
Blatant attack on press freedom, says Editors Guild
The Editors Guild of India, in a statement, said that it was “deeply disturbed” by the “surveys at the offices of news websites NewsClick.in and Newslaundry.com”.
“…this was a clear intimidatory and blatant attack on their rights, and therefore press freedom. It is learnt that the IT team made clones of Sekhri’s mobile and laptop, as well as some other office machines, and no hash value was given to them. This is clearly beyond the mandate of surveys as defined under section 133A of the Income Tax Act, which only allows data pertaining to the investigation to be copied, and certainly not personal and professional data of journalists. It is also in violation of procedures laid out in the Information Technology Act, 2000,” the Editors Guild stated.
It added, “The Guild is deeply concerned that such indiscriminate seizure of journalists’ data, which could include sensitive information such as details of sources, stories under works and other journalistic data, is in violation of free speech and freedom of press…The dangerous trend of government agencies harassing and intimidating independent media must stop as it undermines our constitutional democracy.”
The Guild further stated that “great care and sensitivity” should be shown in all such investigations so as to “not undermine the rights of journalists and media organisations”. “Further, to ensure that such investigations are conducted within the prescribed rules and that they don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media,” it added.