Delhi police raided the premises of a news site known for its fierce criticism of the Indian government, following a retracted story about a politician in charge of the ruling party’s media campaigns social.

Officers arrived at the homes of several Wire editors in the middle of the night and seized their laptops and phones. They also searched the website’s office in the capital.

They were acting on a complaint from Amit Malviya, the head of the social media division of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who had accused the Wire of publishing a false story that tarnished its reputation.

The Wire report alleged that Malviya used special privileges granted to him by Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, to delete posts critical of the BJP.

Malviya said her ability to do her job was damaged. “They [the stories] stained the atmosphere and seriously undermined the relationships and trust established over the years for me to perform the duties of my responsibility,” Malviya said.

The Wire discovered after publication that a researcher had falsified documents used in the story. He acknowledged the error, recanted and acknowledged the need for more stringent cross-checking by independent experts.

The Wire has filed its own complaint against independent researcher, Devesh Kumar, for supplying it with fabricated material. The website’s editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, said on Tuesday that Kumar had confessed to fabricating the evidence.

The raids have been criticized by journalists and opposition politicians, who for years have accused the government of trying to muzzle or control the media.

Critics of Narendra Modi’s government say freedom of expression has been severely curtailed since he came to power in 2014, with much of the mainstream media acting almost like government cheerleaders. This left only a few news channels and publications that operate independently.

Suhasini Haidar, a journalist, described the raid as “thinly veiled intimidation”. A spokesperson for the opposition Congress party tweeted: “Modi government’s decision on all free media voices: stifle, suppress, subjugate, strangle…the nation has turned into a police state.

An editorial in the Citizen, another news site, stressed the need for journalists to exercise their responsibility and accountability, but criticized the raid. “The use of the police to raid editors’ homes is unacceptable and a flagrant violation of long-established media standards. It amounts to intimidation and is an action used by governments to muzzle the media by spreading fear and terror,” he said.

Press freedom bodies have also condemned a growing trend to prevent journalists from leaving the country. In the latest example, a Kashmiri photojournalist said last month that she had been banned from flying to New York, where she was to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Sanna Irshad Mattoo, 27, was part of a team of Reuters photographers who won a Pulitzer for Feature Film Photography for their coverage of India’s coronavirus crisis.

It was the second time that Mattoo was prevented from traveling abroad. In July, she was arrested by officials as she tried to board a flight to Paris, where she was to attend a book launch and an exhibition featuring her photos from Kashmir.

In the latest World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders in May, India fell to 150th out of 180 countries, down from 142nd the previous year and 133rd in 2016.

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