(Bloomberg) -- India’s latest media crackdown puts the US in an awkward position as it seeks to balance promotion of human rights with courting New Delhi to counter the influence of China.
Police in the South Asian country’s capital arrested the editor-in-chief and another employee of online newspaper NewsClick Tuesday under sweeping anti-terrorism laws. Authorities also raided the offices of the publication, without giving a reason.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been targeting critical independent media since he took office in 2014. NewsClick came to prominence in 2021 for its extensive coverage of farmer protests against government plans to liberalize agriculture. India has previously accused the media organization of having funding ties to China, which it denies.
For Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based political analyst, the arrests create a challenge for Washington.
“The US does not want to get too involved in India’s domestic affairs,” she said. “They are looking at India through a geopolitical prism and with China in the picture, India is a strategic partner.”
US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said he couldn’t comment yet on claims NewsClick has ties to China.
Patel also stressed the importance of press freedom globally. “We raise concerns on these matters with the Indian government, with countries around the world,” he told reporters in Washington.
India has often argued its democracy and vibrant press are a counterpoint to China with its one-party state and heavily controlled media. The US frequently finds itself torn between its efforts to defend human rights around the world and the pragmatic need to partner with governments accused of rights abuses.
India’s government has often used its anti-terrorism law to intimidate and punish journalists. The law, which doesn’t allow for bail, empowers the police to detain suspects for years without leveling official charges.
India has also scrutinized many mobile app and technology companies for alleged links to China after a Himalayan border clash between New Delhi and Beijing in 2020.
In 2021, authorities raided NewsClick’s office and the homes of seven staff members for what they described as improper foreign investments. Several of them were questioned and NewsClick called the allegations “misleading, unfounded and without basis in fact or law.”
In August, the New York Times cited NewsClick as an organization allegedly being used for Chinese propaganda overseas. India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said at the time the media outlet was being funded by Beijing.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Thakur said he didn’t need to justify the raids. “If someone has done something wrong, the investigative agencies will work on it,” he said.
NewClick’s human resources head Amit Chakravarty was also arrested. Several employees’ laptops and mobile phones were seized. Local media reported at least 30 premises were raided, including the homes of six NewsClick reporters.
India fell to 161st of 180 countries and territories in a press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, a press advocacy group, this year. In February, authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi, weeks after the British broadcaster aired a documentary about Modi’s role in 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat.
Last year, Mohammad Zubair, a journalist running a fact-checking website, Alt News, was arrested after highlighting anti-Islamic comments made by former BJP officials.
The Press Club of India expressed concern about the arrests and raid, saying it wants the government to explain its actions. The group plans to protest the detentions at a march Wednesday.
Jerath, the analyst, questioned India’s move to arrest the people under the terrorism law without providing details or evidence.
“You have already labeled them as terrorists,” she said.
(Updates with details on the crackdown. An earlier story corrected paragraph 11 to show authorities raided the homes of seven NewsClick staff members in 2021.)
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