NARRATIVES AND NARRATIVE makers can no longer be accepted at face value. Neither can they be presumed to be entirely innocent. Rather, the thinking public, as well as the common citizenry, is now aware that there are huge, and often hidden, forces at work. Not just when it comes to political parties spinning competing narratives. Or colossal and complex narrative systems such as India’s multilingual cinema and entertainment industry. Which also include sport and infotainment.
Whether in mainstream TV and print media or social media and web-based portals, ideas, ideologies, and even propaganda, are planted and promoted by global actors and even criminal organisations. In fact, discernible behind even seemingly innocuous opinions is the impress of underlying deep narratives. The war of narratives pursues us everywhere; we ourselves are in the thick of these battles, whether we know it or not.
Take the still unfolding l’affaire NewsClick. As this column goes to press, the CBI raided its premises, accusing it of violations of the Foreign Currency Regulations Act (FCRA). What exactly is going on? Have the law enforcement agencies uncovered a sinister, terrorist plot to destabilise India, or are the raids on the owners and staffers of the portal yet another attempt by the ruling party to muzzle the media and curtail our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms?
But let us not jump the gun. We must first disambiguate the issue. An ideological assault on the nation, even if traitorous, may not be illegal. At the same time, an activity which escapes prosecution does not exonerate it. For all one knows, it may be not only injurious to national interests but even be tantamount to treason. What, then, should the government do to discourage, if not stop, it?
If we leave the legal and moral issues aside for a moment, few people really care about NewsClick. From the public reaction, there seems little sympathy for its owners and writers. Far from thinking that this is some sort of freedom of expression issue, the common public perception seems to be that NewsClick harbours paid ‘anti-nationals’. Now that a Chinese hand, via the Sri Lankan-American Shanghai resident Neville Roy Singham, has been uncovered, NewsClick sympathisers are a tiny, mostly ‘LeLi’ (left-liberal) minority.
The main source of the Chinese links, possibly even of the law enforcement raids, is, quite ironically, an investigative report in a newspaper considered very anti-Modi, if not anti-India, The New York Times. According to ‘A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul’, published on August 5 , there is a worldwide “lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda. At the centre is a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes.”
India’s law enforcement agencies, including the Directorate of Enforcement (ED), the Economic Offences Wing of Delhi Police, and the Income Tax Department have been sniffing at the money trail behind NewsClick, linking it to the aforementioned Singham. On October 3, some 400 police officials raided around 100 locations across the country, including Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Mumbai, and Ghaziabad, questioning dozens of NewsClick employees, consultants, freelancers, and staffers.
Earlier, on August 17, Delhi Police’s special cell charged NewsClick founder, Prabir Purkayastha, and HR Head Amit Chakraborty, with terrorist activities, terror funding, and criminal conspiracy under the dreaded “anti-terrorist” provisions of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Indian Penal Code Sections 153A (promoting enmity) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) were also invoked against them.
According to details reported in the media, NewsClick received ₹38 crore from China-related foreign entities linked to Singham to promote pro-China stories and, by implication, destabilise India. Of these funds, ₹9.6 crore was infused by a US entity, Worldwide Media Holdings LLC, through the purchase of shares at inflated prices. This company has links with Singham. In addition, NewsClick allegedly received ₹28 crore between 2018 and 2022 through “export remittances”. What exactly they exported is not clear.
As to who or what constitutes ‘anti-national ’, that seems to be the regime’s prerogative to define. It may range from working against the Indian union to being unpatriotic
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Receiving money from questionable sources in a suspicious manner is one part of the story. The other part is how this money was disbursed and distributed. According to the investigative agencies, NewsClick paid ₹21 lakh to the Bhima Koregaon-accused Maoist activist Gautam Navlakha and ₹40 lakh to journalist-consultant Paranjoy Guha Thakurta as salary. In addition, ₹24 lakh was paid to ‘anti-Modi’ activist Teesta Setalvad and her family. Other journalists and consultants also received money.
In response, NewsClick describes in detail how it has been “targeted” by various government agencies since 2021, without any wrongdoing on its part being proven so far. It asserts that it is an “independent news website”, which does not “propagate Chinese propaganda”, nor “take directions from Neville Roy Singham.” Moreover, “All funding received by NewsClick has been through the appropriate banking channels and has been reported to the relevant authorities as required by law.”
The ‘LeLi’ ecosystem, with its usual cheerleaders, several of them with an avowed anti-Modi and anti-BJP narrative track record has, as might be expected, cried foul. They have accused the government of imposing an undeclared Emergency, throttling democracy, and attacking the freedom of the press. Some of them, especially with links to CPM, are deeply embedded in the media. A few even own major media houses or have won international awards.
But the point is that most of these so-called “accused” are not criminals, let alone terrorists, in the normal sense of the word. Yet, they, and several others in the media, have been interrogated, jailed, and persecuted to the point that their normal lives have been turned totally upended and disrupted by the Indian law enforcement apparatus. What are their crimes? Barring a few, none that might be proven or lead to conviction. Ostensibly, the only thing that most are guilty of are their political postures and positions, which are unpalatable to the ruling dispensation, whether at the state or the Centre.
When it comes to sources of funding, we know that many media houses are promoted, paid, and propped up by questionable, if not irregular, means. Why? Because narratives never come free of charge. The advertising industry is the greatest example of paid influencers who often work against the interests of the populace. This is true in all free societies, where paid lobbyists and influencers plant opinions or take sides to shape narratives. In totalitarian or authoritarian states, government propaganda is not even expected to be true.
There lies the rub. Free societies are so easy to destabilise with paid narratives. George Soros’ by now infamous Open Society Foundation has been accused of infiltrating and undermining democracies across the world. Even unscrupulously effecting regime changes by influencing election outcomes by exploiting the weaknesses and freedoms of those very open societies whose freedoms Soros claims to support.
The foreign-funded Omidyar Network and the Indian business-funded Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation support many media outlets in India—can we read sinister motives behind all such funding? What about media funded by venture capitalists or investors or big business? Are these tainted too?
To return to NewsClick, let us be clear: because you are the press, you cannot be above the law. The media is no holy cow. Moreover, other media outlets in the past have also been exposed for their dubious funding, complicated and obfuscating accounting, and financial misdemeanours. Narratives do not arise sui generis. They are funded and promoted by interested parties and persons, including foreign powers and entities.
Every government in power has used draconian provisions of the law to discourage, if not intimidate, its media opponents. Nevertheless, let us also not forget that the conviction rate under the UAPA is very low, just about 2 per cent, although those charged may languish in jail for years.
What, then, is the upshot of the NewsClick raids? Either the government agencies will be able to prove criminality and secure convictions. Otherwise, after long-drawn-out legal proceedings in which the process itself is the punishment, the accused will walk free. In either scenario, the message that will go out loud and clear is that those who seek to undermine the nation will not be allowed free rein.
As to who or what constitutes “anti-national”, that seems to be the ruling regime’s prerogative to define and determine. It may range from working against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security of the Indian Union to being unpatriotic, pro-China, pro-Pakistani, pro-Khalistani, anti-Hindu, or simply plain old anti-government, anti-BJP, anti-Modi, and so on. Whatever its interpretation, one message will go out loud and clear. Those who mess with this government will not be spared.
Breaking News: Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena has just given permission, 13 years later, to prosecute Arundhati Roy for a speech she gave in 2010. The sections invoked are 153A (promoting enmity between different groups based on religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and engaging in acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code. But this calls for a separate column.