A day after Income Tax officers spent over 12 hours at the offices of news websites NewsClick and Newslaundry - over tax evasion allegations - Newslaundry co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri told NDTV he was not allowed to call his lawyer or accountant during the "survey".
Mr Sekhri told NDTV the officials took everyone's phones and ordered them not to leave. He said his personal laptop and phone were also taken and data from those devices copied, despite his objections over a possible violation of his fundamental right to privacy.
"They took the phones of everyone... said no one can go out. I asked if I could speak with my lawyer or accountant, and they said you cannot do this... so I could not call out," Mr Sekhri told NDTV.
"They also took my phone and laptop... I told them it is a violation of my fundamental right to privacy, but they said 'no,... we can do this'," he said, adding that the "courteous and professional" officials then asked him questions about the founding of Newslaundry and its investors.
He told NDTV this information had already been submitted earlier - when the IT department raided Newslaundry offices in June - and that he simply submitted it again, stressing, "We have nothing to hide... we conduct our business honestly and with integrity".
Mr Sekhri did, however, highlight his discomfort over personal data being taken (he was not given a signed digital copy), pointing out that his devices contained medical information and family photos.
"My understanding is that they can only take information related to tax matters... my phone and laptop have medical data, family photos... don't see how the law allows this," he said.
"... not comfortable with my right to privacy being breached."
He also pointed out that as a journalist his phone and laptop could have privileged information.
Earlier today Mr Sekhri posted a formal statement on Twitter, in which he said he had been told "... the law requires me to comply without seeking legal advice".
NewsClick has yet to release a statement on the IT officials' visit.
Officials have said yesterday's "survey" operation was to verify certain tax payment details and remittances made by the organisations.
The team from the IT department just left. Thank you all for your support & concern & the hundreds of missed calls & texts. I will issue a statement tomorrow. Am sure our team at @newslaundry didn't slack off & did what they signed up to do - awesome journalism. Lage raho....— Abhinandan Sekhri (@AbhinandanSekhr) September 10, 2021
According to the Income Tax Act, a "survey" is restricted to the business premises and office hours. Account books and inventories can be examined but cannot be seized.
Newslaundry offices were raided in June and it is unclear what prompted a second visit from the 'taxman' within a few months.
This is also the second time NewsClick have been visited.
They were raided by the Enforcement Directorate in February in connection with a money laundering case linked to allegedly dubious foreign funding received by the registered company that runs the site.
The Delhi High Court has granted interim protection from arrest to Newsclick's founder/editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha in connection with the probe. The court has also granted him protection from coercive action in the Enforcement Directorate case.