NewsClick: ED probes Prakash Karat-billionaire Singham email exchanges, funds transfer to journalists

NEW DELHI, Aug 10 : A dump of email exchanges that include some between American billionaire Neville Roy Singham and senior CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat are under the scanner of the ED as part of its money laundering probe against news portal NewsClick which is alleged to have received dubious funds from the businessman to spread Chinese propaganda, official sources said on Thursday.
The federal financial investigation agency is also probing the alleged transfer of funds of about Rs 40 lakh from NewsClick to the family members of activist Teesta Setalvad, a transfer of about Rs 72 lakh to journalist and author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, some employees of NewsClick and a few independent media persons over a period of time.
It had found that NewsClick also allegedly paid Rs 17.08 lakh as "salary" to jailed activist Gautam Navlakha, Rs 97.32 lakh to Bappaditya Sinha, a shareholder in NewsClick and a member of the IT cell of the CPI(M) over an unspecified period.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED), according to the sources, is investigating the "end use" of these funds.
The online news portal and its activities came under the spotlight again after a recent New York Times report claimed that the outlet was part of a global network that received funding from Singham, who allegedly works closely with the Chinese government media machine.
The report was also raised in Parliament when BJP MP Nishikant Dubey said early this week that the funds pumped into NewsClick were used to create an anti-India environment and that he had documents pertaining to email exchanges between Karat and Singham.
The ED, as part of its criminal investigation against NewsClick, its promoters and others, is probing alleged fraudulent foreign funds infusion of more than Rs 86 crore from entities linked to Singham into its holding company (PPK Newsclick Studio Pvt.Ltd.) and is soon expected to file a charge sheet in this case.
The ED had first raided the premises of NewsClick in the Saidulajab area of the national capital in September 2021 on charges of money laundering and since then the probe is continuing beside the litigation between the two sides in the Delhi High Court.
The agency has recorded the statements of more than 20 people in this case including that of NewsClick founder and editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha.
Thakurta told PTI that the ED has questioned him in the past as part of this investigation and that he has been "a consultant with NewsClick since May 2018. However, I am neither an employee, shareholder or part of the editorial board of NewsClick. I am an independent journalist and I have written and contributed to many news outlets".
"The amount that was given to me (by NewsClick) has varied from time to time over the last five years. There have been several months when I did not raise an invoice all I can say is that the amount stated seems to be highly inflated. I really hope I have got Rs 72 lakh," he said.
Karat and Setalvad did not respond to queries sent to them.
The CPI(M) in a statement hit out at Dubey, charging that a smear campaign is underway against the Left as it is the most "consistent opponent" of the BJP's communal ideology.
The ED, according to the sources, has retrieved emails during its searches and other evidence collection exercise where Karat, 75, in January 2021 is reportedly exchanging emails with Singham and talking about "The Indian government is restricting investments and imports from China which is going to harm our country more", coverage of his party in a Chinese daily and some other topics.
Some other emails recovered during the searches on NewsClick pertain to March 2020 where Singham, Purkayastha and some others are exchanging notes on a "research for three article series on China and its handling of the virus (COVID-19)".
An email being studied by the ED of March 30, 2020, includes Purkayastha's "request" seeking a timeline of the number of tests and people who tested positive in China (for coronavirus) and how that country ramped up its production and testing, "in contrast to countries like the US and India, who with so much lead time are still unable to ramp up kit production or procurement".
Singham is learnt to have stated in the same email about "how China learned quickly when handling the crisis" and his team "working very hard to triple check ALL facts among other topics".
A number of other emails that the ED recovered pertain to conversations among Singham, Purkayastha and others on news stories related to producing news stories about China, according to the sources.
The agency had last year attached a flat, worth Rs 4.52 crore and located in south Delhi's Saket area, linked to Purkayastha apart from fixed deposits worth Rs 41 lakh as part of this money laundering probe.
The adjudicating authority of the PMLA confirmed the ED's attachment order for the flat in February.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur had on Monday said India had been telling the world since 2021 that NewsClick was a dangerous global network of "Chinese propaganda" that was spreading fake news.
The minister said, "If you see the funding network of NewsClick, it was funded by a foreigner, Neville Roy Singham and he gets funds from China.
Neville Roy Singham has direct contact with the propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese media company Maku Group," he said.
"They present fake news in the name of free news. Congress and other parties are supporting them," he alleged.
NewsClick had issued a statement on Monday claiming the allegations being made against it "by certain political actors and sections of the media are unfounded and without basis in fact or law".
It said these charges were "false and misleading and pertain to matters that are currently sub judice before courts in India. We respect the sanctity of the legal process and do not intend to indulge in a media trial", the portal said.
The Delhi High Court, it added, has granted interim protection from arrest to various officials of the company. PTI