Media group Dainik Bhaskar and an Uttar Pradesh-based news channel were raided today by Income Tax officials who launched searches in their offices across the country around 5.30 am. Both have been accused of tax evasion and floating shell companies in a statement released to news agency ANI by government sources.
Raids took place at over 30 locations of Dainik Bhaskar in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The homes and offices of the group's promoters were also raided.
Uttar Pradesh TV channel Bharat Samachars offices in Lucknow and the home of its editor were also searched. The raids were based on "conclusive evidence of tax fraud" by the channel, said officials.
Both the media houses had recently put out reports critical of the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, particularly the second wave of Covid that swept through India in April-May.
Dainik Bhaskar Editor Om Gaur told NDTV that the raids were a surprise and an obvious attempt to suppress independent journalism.
"We won't give in to pressure. We will stick to our journalism," Mr Gaur said.
The New York Times had, a month ago, published Mr Gaur's op-ed on Covid deaths in India, titled: "The Ganges Is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie." The holiest of India's rivers "became Exhibit A for the Modi administration's failures and deceptions", he wrote.
Posting a rebuttal about charges of trying to influence the Dainik Bhaskar's editorial policy, the Income Tax Department said:
Certain allegations have appeared in some sections of media that ITDept officials were suggesting changes in stories &taking editorial decisions during their search on offices of a certain publication.These allegations are absolutely false &are categorically denied by ITDept(1/3)— Income Tax India (@IncomeTaxIndia) July 22, 2021
Shri Om Gaur is based in Lucknow as per his interview to media. It is emphasised that Lucknow office of the publication was not searched by the Income Tax team. Sh Om Gaur was not even questioned. The allegations being made have no basis & in fact seem to be highly motivated(3/3)— Income Tax India (@IncomeTaxIndia) July 22, 2021
The raids were raised in the Rajya Sabha by the opposition, which linked the crackdown to reports on Covid "mismanagement" by the government.
Responding to the charge, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur dissociated the government from the Income Tax action.
"Agencies do their own work, we don't interfere in their functioning. I would also like to say that facts need to be found before reporting about any incident. Sometimes lack of information is misleading," Anurag Thakur told reporters at a cabinet briefing.
In a statement attributed to unnamed "government sources", news agency ANI reported, "There are allegations of huge tax evasion by the [Dainik Bhaskar] group by claiming bogus expenses and purchases using shell entities. The group has floated several paper companies for this purpose, with their employees as shareholders and directors."
Three Chief Ministers and several opposition leaders denounced the raids on media outlets.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called it a brutal attempt to stifle democracy.
I strongly condemn this vindictive act that aims to suppress voices that bring out the TRUTH. It's a grave violation that undermines the very principles of democracy.— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) July 22, 2021
Urging everyone in the Media to stay strong. Together we shall never let the autocratic forces succeed! (2/2)
"Through its reporting Dainik Bhaskar has exposed the Modi regime's monumental mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now paying the price. An Undeclared Emergency as Arun Shourie has said - this is a Modified Emergency," tweeted Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said it was a brazen attempt to suppress the voice of the media.
Income Tax raid on Dainik Bhaskar newspaper & Bharat Samachar news channel is a brazen attempt to suppress the voice of media. Modi government cannot tolerate even an iota of its criticism. Due to its fascist mentality, the BJP doesn't want to see the truth in a democratic setup.— Ashok Gehlot (@ashokgehlot51) July 22, 2021
Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the raids were an attempt to terrorise the media. "The message is clear - whoever speaks against the BJP government will not be spared. This is a dangerous mentality. All should raise their voice against this. These raids should be stopped immediately and the media should be allowed to function freely," he said.
One of the largest newspaper groups in the country, the Dainik Bhaskar was at the forefront of reporting on the scale of devastation in the second wave of Covid in April-May.
Dainik Bhaskar's reports investigated official claims during the pandemic as raging infections left people desperate for oxygen, hospital beds and vaccine.
Its reportage exposed the grisly sight of bodies of Covid victims floating in the river Ganga and washing up on the banks of towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, possibly discarded because of the lack of means to cremate them. The reports also revealed bodies buried in shallow graves by the river in UP.