Unfazed by the Income Tax department's raids on its properties in multiple cities over alleged tax evasion, media group Dainik Bhaskar on Thursday said it was "independent" and the readers' will was supreme for it.
"I am independent because I am Bhaskar. Only readers' will prevails at Bhaskar," a message in Hindi on the group's digital news website under the headline "Swatantra Bhaskar" said.
The IT department's teams had reached its offices in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan and this action came only after the group brought to light the government's lapses during the second wave of coronavirus, the statement on the web site said.
It claimed that the IT department teams also raided the houses of its employees, seized their mobile phones and did not allow them to leave. Even night-shift staff were not allowed to leave the offices, it said.
Income Tax officials said it was part of the procedure, and the staff were allowed to leave after legal formalities, it said. The group's digital media team was allowed to go home at 12.30 pm on Thursday, it added.
The group's digital news site had put out reports, along with pictures, on dead bodies of suspected coronavirus patients floating down the river Ganga in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which had led to nationwide consternation.
As the Income Tax raids unfolded, Dainik Bhaskar also ran a readers survey on social media, asking," Are you with the fearless journalism of Dainik Bhaskar? Answer 1 Yes, 2 No."
The Income Tax Department rejected allegations that its officials "suggested changes" in news stories while they conducted raids at multiple offices of the Dainik Bhaskar media group on tax evasion charges.
The department issued a series of three tweets, saying its teams only looked into financial documents during the searches.
"Certain allegations have appeared in some sections of media that IT Dept 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 IT Dept," the IT Department tweeted.
In keeping with the department's protocol, it said, the investigation team "only looked into the financial transactions of the group related to tax evasion".
The tweets by the tax department also referred to the comments made in this context by one of the national editors of the group to some television news channels.
"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," the department said.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath said the tax raids on Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar media groups on charges of tax evasion were an attempt by the Union government to suppress the "fourth pillar of democracy" and prevent truth from coming out.
Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said on Twitter that tax officials "are present" at half a dozen premises of the group, including at its office at Press Complex in state capital Bhopal where it is headquartered.
State Communist Party of India-Marxist secretary Jaswinder Singh said the raids were not only an attack on the freedom of expression but a clear sign of a situation worse than the Emergency. The action came at a time when the government was in a tight spot in Parliament over the Pegasus snooping case and coronavirus deaths, he said.
It also proved that the Narendra Modi government was trying to stifle the voice of democracy, the CPM leader said.