Police raids of journalists' homes after BJP leader's complaint spark outrage

Several journalists and editors of media outlets have been targeted in recent years

A visitor outside the office of 'The Wire', an independent local news website, in New Delhi. Amit Malviya, the IT head of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said he would file civil and criminal charges against the website after it reported in a now-retracted story that the US social media giant Meta had granted him extraordinary powers to censor Instagram posts.  AP
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Raids of prominent journalists' homes in India following a complaint by a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leader over a retracted story have drawn fierce criticism online.

Late on Monday, police raided the homes of New Delhi-based news site The Wire's founding editors, deputy editors and product head across Delhi and Mumbai, and seized their phones and laptops.

The raids came after Amit Malviya, the BJP's head of IT, filed a complaint against the five and accused them of cheating and forgery “to malign and tarnish” his reputation following a story in which they claimed Mr Malviya had unbridled influence over the functioning of social media platforms.

The news website later retracted the story and apologised.

“The Wire's editors and staffers fully co-operated but placed on record that all devices and hard disks were seized without mentioning any hash value — a unique numerical value used to ensure the integrity of the device and its data,” The Wire said.

Controversy

The Wire has been vocal about the ruling right-wing nationalist party, its leaders and its members. It has recently come under scrutiny after it published two controversial reports claiming that Meta — the parent company of social media giant Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — had given certain privileges to Mr Malviya.

An October story addressed the XCheck programme, with The Wire saying certain people, including Mr Malviya, were given special power to control the content on Meta’s social media platforms. The report caused a furore on social media.

But the allegations were denied by Meta’s director for policy communications Andy Stone, who said the documentation in the report appeared to be fabricated.

Meta has reportedly run a programme called XCheck that excludes certain high-profile or influential figures from the usual community standards in relation to what they post. Facebook's semi-independent oversight board in 2021 said it would review the practice following a Wall Street Journal investigation into XCheck.

Facebook's Meta logo at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.  AP Photo

The Wire initially stood by its report and followed up with details of the technical process it followed, including redacted emails from two experts. However, it was later found that the experts were never part of the process and the news website said it had been “deceived”.

It eventually retracted the reports and issued an apology to its readers saying that had been a “slippage in the editorial assessment of tech-related matters”.

It also filed a complaint against one of its former consultants, alleging that he had provided them with fake documents and emails for the series of stories on Meta.

Mr Malviya filed a case against the news site last weekend, alleging that it had published the “fabricated” story to tarnish his image.

Condemnation

However, the raids on Monday sparked widespread condemnation on social media, with technology experts, journalists and lawyers saying they were an attempt to harass the media.

Several journalists and editors of media outlets have in recent years been targeted by the central as well as state governments. Some have accused the authorities of trying to crack down on free speech and dissent in the world’s largest democracy since India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Mr Modi's party denies this.

Prashant Bhushan, a supreme court lawyer, said in a tweet: “There is absolutely no basis for this … the raids are totally malafide; to harass … [the] media.”

Apar Gupta, advocate and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said that while he acknowledged the false reports and negligence of the news outlet, the raids were likely to risk their lives.

The Wire was also part of the investigation team that claimed the Indian government was illegally using Israeli surveillance spyware Pegasus to snoop on an array of opposition leaders, journalists, academics, and retired and serving government bureaucrats.

Mr Gupta added: “The registration of a criminal case and now the use of coercive police searches on the houses of the editors of The Wire deserves wide and unequivocal condemnation … It is likely the search will lead to a seizure and/or cloning of their digital devices.”

In July, Delhi police arrested Mohammad Zubair, the co-founder of the leading fact-check website Alt News, for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments”, and “promoting enmity between religious groups.”

The arrest came after he flagged remarks by BJP leader Nupur Sharma about the Prophet Mohammed that sparked street protests and a diplomatic row with several Muslim nations.

The authorities also raided the homes of the editor and shareholders of NewsClick, an online news portal, in February of last year.

NewsClick said the raids were an attempt to browbeat “an independent and progressive voice through a vindictive course of action”.

Updated: November 01, 2022, 2:59 PM
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