Asserting that there can be no democracy without freedom of press, Rajya Sabha member Vivek Tankha of the Congress on Sunday said the income tax searches against Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar smack of mala fides.
The strong public perception is that these draconian actions have been initiated against these two media companies selectively to punish them for public-spirited reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, he said in a letter to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
“There is no denying that the publication in question was critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It was stressing for more transparency while trying to hold accountable all those in power across political spectrum, said Tankha, a Rajya Sabha member from Madhya Pradesh.
He said it appears that the Income Tax Department has not adhered to the basic tenets of rule of law in their sensational press releases when the tax searches are in progress.
Tankha, also a senior Supreme Court advocate, said it is disheartening to take note of various articles in newspapers that the Income Tax Department has pre-decided evasion liability of assessee whilst the search proceedings are still in operation and the steps of appraisal are yet to commence.
Citing circulars by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the search and seizure manual, he said they make it clear that such actions of issuing information pertaining to search operation to press are not only unwarranted, but also highly illegal .
“The basic tenets of rule of law require adherence to norms and prescriptions in vogue, lest our constitutional democratic values are rendered otiose and it turns into a power-centered rule of men, he said.
The CBDT had on Saturday claimed to have detected “fictitious transactions” of Rs 2,200 crore after the Income Tax Department carried out multi-city raids against the Dainik Bhaskar media group.
It said the searches that were launched on July 22 in nine cities, including Bhopal, Indore, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Noida, are “continuing and further investigations are in progress.”
The CBDT claimed to have seized documents and digital records that indicate “unaccounted” transactions of about Rs 200 crore after it raided the Lucknow-based Hindi news channel Bharat Samachar and its linked businesses.
These searches were also carried out on July 22 in Lucknow, Basti, Varanasi, Jaunpur and Kolkata and at the residential premises of Bharat Samachar Editor-in-chief Brajesh Misra, state head Virendra Singh, BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh’s Harraiya Assembly seat Ajay Singh and some others.
Tankha said, There can be no democracy without freedom of press. As a concerned citizen, I would not raise a public protest for any legitimate action under the Income Tax Act; but today the nation stands convinced that the action against Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar under Section 132 of the Income Tax Act smacks of malafides.
“By doing this media trial, and making onslaughts on the 4th pillar of democracy, what message your officials are giving to the masses?” he asked.
That to hold those who govern to any accountability is scorned at and will be met with vengeance? If anyone critical of the governments will be met with a media trial and sensationalisation, then don’t these actions reduce the whole idea of of, by and for’ the people to a nullity? Tankha said.
In fact, playing to the gallery also casts a shadow on the genuineness, if any, of the actions of CBDT officials, Tankha said.
This is an anguish and a request to look beyond small vested interests in the larger public interest and goals which are founded on solemn constitutional aspirations, he said.
He requested Sitharaman to “give due attention and confer required seriousness on the implications of what seems to be done unmindfully or by design by a handful of officials.