Officials from the Income Tax Department on Friday, 10 September, raided the offices of news-media organisations NewsClick and Newslaundry.
Unnamed officials told PTI that they were covering the business premises of the two portals and that the operations were being conducted to verify certain tax payment details and remittances made by the organisations. However, the officials said that they were conducting separate “survey operations” and not “raids”.
“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,” an official was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.
According to the Income Tax Act, officials can enter any premises of the assessee for a search and seizure operation. Meanwhile, surveys can only be conducted on business premises and start during regular business hours, whereas searches can be undertaken any time of the day. During surveys, I-T officials look into books of accounts, bank accounts, cash, stock and non-valuable documents, among others.
Meanwhile, sources had informed The Quint that I-T officials were still at the Newslaundry office, and "searches" were still going on as late as 5 pm.
“The officials reached the Newslaundry office at around 11.40 am. Usually, when searches go on, they ask employees to keep their phones on one side or take away their phones as they don’t want people to speak out,” a source in the know of things had said.
I-T officials had served notice to both the organisations on 30 June and had taken the statements of NewsClick's founder and Editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and Pranjal, reported The Indian Express.
“Earlier, I-T officers had come to Newslaundry office, given us summons and asked us to give them information. We had complied with everything they had wanted. We provided them with all the paperwork and details of the company. But of course, they want to do their own search now, and they are in the office,” a Newslaundry employee told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
The Wire quoted a Newslaundry employee, on Friday, as saying, “Around six to seven persons from the income tax department landed at the office. So far, the raid is only at one office of Newslaundry.”
The Newslaundry employee also told The Wire that the organisations’ financial records are being checked.
Meanwhile, around seven-eight officials had reached NewsClick’s office at around noon and summoned Purkayastha to come to the office. I-T officials also made three trips to his home on 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” reported The Indian Express.
The raid was on till as late as 5.30 pm and several employees, including Purkayastha and Pranjal, were still inside the office. The officials had reportedly taken away the mobile phones of all those inside.
As per a reporter associated with The Indian Express, no communication could be established on Friday afternoon (while the said survey was purportedly underway) with those inside the NewsClick office.
The Wire also quoted a senior NewsClick employee who is working from home as saying:
“There is a search and seizure order, so the phones of all persons present in the office have been seized, making it difficult to get any information.”
NewsClick is also being probed by the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing, as per the daily.
I-T Department Searches Ahmedabad's Leading Media Group
On Wednesday, a team of 125 I-T officials also searched two real estate firms of Ahmedabad’s leading media house, Sambhaav Group and the premises of two of their associated real estate brokers for possible tax evasion.
Starting the search operation at 6 am, the team searched around 15-20 premises belonging to Sambhaav Group and two brokers — Yogesh Pujara and Dipak Thakkar.
The officials also searched the residences and offices of owners of Sambhaav Group, including the offices of Nila Infrastructures Limited and Nila Spaces Limited, in Ahmedabad. Both the firms are listed on the stock exchanges.
Sambhaav Media Ltd runs VTV News, VTV Gujarati, Abhiyaan magazine, Sambhav Metro, a tabloid, Top FM and Wise TV.
Nila Infrastructures has developed several real estate projects in Ahmedabad, Barmer, Udaipur, Bhilwara, Jodhpur, Becharaji, Modasa, Surat and Vadodara. It has also built 91 bus stations in the BRTS project and constructed houses under Mukhamantri Aawas Yojana.
Asked if the I-T department was targeting media firms for their searches, the official said, “Our searches were related to the real-estate business,” reported The Indian Express.
The officials said the searches were “continuing, and the quantum of unaccounted transactions will be known probably within a couple of days.”
In February this year, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had raided the NewsClick office as well as the homes of its editors in connection with allegations of money laundering.
Several media groups had then condemned the ED probe, dubbing it an attempt to silence critical journalism. The portal had then approached the Delhi High Court, which had granted them interim relief in the ED case.
Earlier in July, the Income Tax department had raided the offices of Dainik Bhaskar.
(With inputs from PTI, The Indian Express and The Wire)