Online news platform Newslaundry on Saturday said it does business "honestly and with integrity" while another such portal Newsclick said investigation against it by various agencies including the latest Income Tax Department survey is an attempt to "stifle" independent journalism.
The tax department surveyed the office of Newslaundry located at Sarvodaya Enclave in south Delhi on Friday along with that of Newsclick in Saidulajab area (south Delhi) on charges of alleged tax evasion.
"We have nothing to hide and have done everything by the book and are not in any breach or violation of any law. We conduct our business honestly and with integrity," Newslaundry co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri said in a message posted on his Twitter handle.
He said the tax team told him he "cannot" speak to his lawyer and the law requires him to comply "without seeking legal advice" adding that the officials were courteous and professional.
He said "no signed hash value of the data copied" was provided to him and that he considered this as violation of his fundamental right to privacy.
A hash value is a numeric value that uniquely identifies data. Hash values represent large amounts of data as much smaller numeric values, so they are used with digital signatures.
Sekhri said the tax team comprising 6-7 people arrived at their office around 12.15 pm and left around 12.40 am on Saturday.
"They searched and looked through all computer devices at the premises. My personal mobile phone, laptop and a couple of office machines were taken control of and all the data on them downloaded by the IT team," he said.
Sekhri said this was the second visit by the tax authorities to his office, the first being in June, and they had given "all documents related to our funding and accounts" to the officials then.
"We will cooperate in whatever way we are required to by the law. We will also continue to practice public interest journalism which is why we exist," he said.
Our support comes from people who value public interest news and chose to subscribe to Newslaundry, not through government or corporate advertisements or public relation exercises, Sekhri said, adding that the online portal is proud of the model it has chosen and championed.
Tax officials had said that separate survey operations on the two news portals were conducted to verify certain tax payment details and remittances made by the organisations.
As part of a survey operation, carried out under Section 133A of the Income Tax Act, 1961, tax officials cover only the business premises of an assessee and those linked to it and not their residential addresses.
However, they are authorised to seize documents, computer and electronic devices as part of the surprise action.
Newsclick said the tax team "recorded the statement of its Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha; impounded his phone; and took away documents what they called "loose papers from the premises".
"They also took email dumps of Prabir, editor Pranjal, and various administrative and financial accounts related to Newsclick," it said in a statement posted on its Twitter handle.
Around 30 employees and support staff of Newsclick were in the office throughout the survey and their phones were temporarily seized, and they were not allowed to use their computers and work, it said.
Newsclick said the latest action against them "appears to relate to the same false and unfounded allegations being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and the Economic Offences Wing, Delhi Police. We have these allegations challenged in the courts".
"These investigations by various agencies, and these selective allegations, are attempts to stifle the independent journalism of media organisations including Newsclick," it said.
Tax officials who reached the Newsclick office around noon on Friday left at midnight.
Newsclick, Purkayastha and other executives were raided by the Enforcement Directorate earlier in February under provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and that investigation is linked to alleged dubious foreign funding received by its registered company, which runs the news portal.