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Search and seizures carried out against journalists, satirists, activists: Here’s what happened

While many individuals reported confiscation of phones and other electronics by the police, there were no reports of officials presenting a written order for the seizure

What’s the news: On October 3, 2023 morning, Delhi police carried out multiple house raids across the city, taking away the phones and laptops of journalists, activists, politicians and even comedians. According to the Scroll, the police took action against these individuals after a case was filed against NewsClick on August 17 for promoting enmity and criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Journalists Abhisar Sharma and Bhasha Singh were among the first individuals to flag a police raid in their house wherein the police took away their electronic devices.

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Later on, Aritry Das, a NewsClick journalist, tweeted how Delhi Police barged into her home at 6 AM and took away her “laptop, phone, hard disks etc.” As per the tweet, the police asked her questions about her reporting work as well.

There are also reports of raids in the houses of other journalists like Prabir Purkayastha, Urmilesh Yadav, Aunindyo Chakravarty, Teesta Setalvad, Sumedha Pal and Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury by the local police.

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Further, historian and social activist Sohail Hashmi also flagged how six officers of Delhi police’s special cell raided his house at 6 AM and seized his computer, phone, hard disc and flash drives.

News Laundry Founder Abhinandan Sekhri reported a ‘forced’ confiscation of satirist Sanjay Rajaura’s phone and laptop as well. Typically, such searches and seizures require written orders from authorities. However, in none of these cases has there been a mention of a written order permitting police to take away the electronic devices of these individuals.

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Why it matters: Police search and seizure of electronic devices like phones and laptops, etc., is a severe invasion of privacy in the digital age. The Supreme Court is already dealing with two petitions related to search and seizure, one of which points out that such actions violate individual rights against self-incrimination by forcing people to share their passwords and other details. Yet, we see a growing trend among law enforcement agencies in seizing devices for alleged offences even without written orders. While the government may argue that it is balancing individual privacy and State concerns, claiming terror concerns, such actions create tensions among critics and dissenters.

Search and seizure may soon be allowed without order

In August 2023, the Indian government introduced the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita (BNSS), 2023 to replace the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) of 1973. Although the Bill has been sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, its Section 185 allows a police officer to search for electronic devices without a written order, provided the officer has “reasonable grounds” for believing that such a thing cannot be otherwise obtained without undue delay. According to Radhika Roy, Associate Litigation Counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, in an earlier conversation with MediaNama:

“Our communication devices contain a multitude of information, including sensitive information, pertaining to our personal lives. This includes photographs, and chats, not excluding privileged communication such as communication with lawyers. More often than not, such communication may be incriminating in nature depending on the subjectivity of the authorities examining it. In such cases, full-fledged access to communication devices by law enforcement agencies and the courts violates our right against self-incrimination. This assumes importance as our right against self-incrimination has not only been constitutionally guaranteed to us under Article 20(3), but also finds a mention in CrPC which gives us the right to silence.”

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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