Last week's tax raids on two of India's largest media houses have once again brought into question the ethics of the Indian government.
The Dainik Bhaskar newspaper group and Bharat Samachar regional television network have both been critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's response to the COVID pandemic. Last week, the two organizations were subjected to raids by the Income Tax Authority on their offices across six states, including Delhi and northern Uttar Pradesh.
The press community believes the move by the Indian government was a blatant act of intimidation from a government frustrated with the media's response to its handling of the health crisis.
The homes of some employees were searched and Dainik Bhaskar reported that agents confiscated cell phones from some members of staff.
Press freedom in peril
The alleged retaliatory response to recent coverage of the second wave of the coronavirus in the country is yet another stark reminder of the shrinking space for independent media in India.
In an official statement, tax authorities said they had grounds to believe the Dainik Bhaskar media group may have evaded taxes worth up to 7 billion Indian rupees ($94 million, €80 million), over a period of six years.
However, close observers of the media landscape say that the media house, which has a considerable following, was targeted because of its critical reporting.
During the height of the second virus wave, for instance, the paper sent a team of 30 reporters to document newly dug graves of COVID victims along a 1,140-kilometer (708 miles) stretch of the Ganges River.
It also reported about the shortage of oxygen supplies and apparent under-reporting of the death toll.
Dainik Bhaskar remains defiant
Its story on graves along the banks of the Ganges River was soon picked up by other news outlets, both domestic and international. The newspaper also ran pictures of mass cremations on its frontpage to contest official claims about COVID deaths, with headlines such as "Government data on deaths is a lie, these burning pyres are telling the truth."
"The newspaper is hailed as the hero of the media world in India today. The more the Modi government unleashes its enforcement might on the the group, the greater its credibility grows," Pamela Philipose, a media commentator, told DW.
Om Gaur, the editor of Dainik Bhaskar, told the Indian broadcaster NDTV that the raids were a surprise and an obvious attempt to suppress independent journalism.
"All our COVID stories were based on facts. If our facts were incorrect, these raids would not have taken place. We won't give in to pressure. We will stick to our journalism," said Gaur.
Misuse of laws
In the last few years, especially under the current political dispensation, there has been misuse of archaic, colonial laws on defamation and sedition as well as self-censorship to muzzle dissenters, especially journalists.
Several media outlets have been investigated by the government for alleged financial impropriety, raising fears about press freedom in the world's largest democracy.
Since 2020, attacks on independent media have surged, with arrests and sedition cases.
In February, income tax officials visited the offices of the website Newsclick in New Delhi, questioned two of its editors, including the editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, for over 100 hours in relation to a money laundering investigation, ordering the outlet to submit a number of additional tax documents.
Still in the dark as to why the raids were conducted, Purkayastha said in a statement that his website sought to "hold power accountable" and the raid was "a clear attempt to suppress journalism critical of the government and its allies."
The news portal had been actively reporting on the ongoing farmers' protests and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.
In 2017, tax authorities raided the offices of NDTV, and the homes of its founders. The move was seen as an attempt to muzzle one of the few liberal voices in a media landscape that is become increasingly starved of oxygen.
Using COVID to silence critics
Journalists who refuse to cower to the government and the ruling party have also been in the line of fire.
In October last year, global media groups accused PM Modi's government of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to silence its critics.
The Rights and Risks Analysis Group detailed in a report that about 55 journalists faced arrest, summons, physical assaults, or alleged destruction of properties and threats for reportage on COVID-19.
The International Press Institute and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists pointed out that the health crisis was being used as an excuse to silence those who have exposed shortcomings in the government's response to it.
Journalist jailed for saying cow dung is not a COVID remedy
For instance, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was charged in May under the draconian National Security Act by the BJP-led Manipur government. His crime? Commenting on social media that cow dung and cow urine are not remedies for COVID-19. He was released from jail just last week.
"No government likes honest journalists and journalism," Neha Dixit, an independent journalist who won the 2019 International Press Freedom Award, told DW. "The difference under the present political leadership is that they have started filing law and order-related cases against journalists."
Dixit has also been threatened with violence and in January there was an attempted break-in at her home.
"This is also the first time that there have been a large number of physical attacks on journalists and there is no push from the government to bring the guilty to the book, also perhaps because of the political affinity with the accused," Dixit added.
To substantiate Dixit's point, in February this year, an obscure YouTube channel posted a video calling for some of India's most prominent journalists to be "hanged" which marked a new danger for India's free press.
The video was shared by a host of right-wing figures despite its call to execute at least five senior journalists, all from India's clutch of independent online news media.
"Either laws like sedition or defamation are used against journalists or they face intimidation at different levels," Dhanya Rajendran,editor-in-chief of The News Minute, told DW.
Do not question authority
Increasing control of the media by big business houses, self-censorship by smaller outfits, and a general fear of religious and political subjects, have further imperiled free and fair reporting.
Several media owners, who owe their allegiance to the powers that be or who want their business interests furthered, have started putting pressure on journalists to curb reporting or change editorial direction.
"Obviously, we are concerned that government agencies are being used as a coercive tool to suppress free and independent journalism. This is all the more disturbing given the recent media reports on the widespread surveillance of journalists and civil society activists using the Pegasus software," Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary of Editors Guild of India, told DW.
Shooting both messenger and message
In its latest report, global body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has identified Prime Minister Modi in its list of 37 heads of state or government who are seen as "predators of press freedom."
He joins the likes of Pakistan's Imran Khan, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Myanmar's military head Min Aung Hliang and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who "trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus."
"It clearly shows that the government wants to kill the messenger in order to avoid the message from spreading," Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director at RSF, told DW.
Spurious claims to reach an objective
RSF, which ranked India 142 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index this month, said government agencies harassing media houses over spurious accusations had almost become a pattern now.
The organization brings out the press freedom index annually and bases its rankings on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.
"This is a preoccupying reality as more and more Indian journalists have to cope with if they want to keep their job. The result is a dramatic loss of pluralism of voices in the media," added Bastard.
"The government does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organization for various reasons," the Indian government's Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur told parliament last week.
Thakur cited a "low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and nontransparent, and lack of clear definition of press freedom."