Income Tax officials on Thursday carried out what it said were "surveys" at the residence and office premises of Raghav Bahl, head of news portal The Quint, over alleged tax evasion, provoking angry reactions.
According to the officials, a team reached the residence of Bahl -- the former head of Network18 TV -- in Noida in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday morning and looked for documents and evidence related to the case.
The search was on even late in the evening.
A senior tax official told IANS that surveys were being carried out over the issue of "bogus long-term capital gains obtained from the sale of some particular companies".
"This issue is about Rs 100 crore worth. We are particularly looking at the tax evasion angle," the official said, adding that the three others covered under the tax surveys were Kamal Lalwani, Anup Jain and Abhimanyu Chaturvedi.
Poonam Agarwal, an Associate Editor at The Quint, tweeted that income tax officials were trying to clone data from Bahl's wife Ritu Kapur's gadgets.
"When she screamed and asked me about the law of privacy and whether they can clone her journalistic and personal material, while I was standing outside her residence, two IT officers pulled her inside the house," Agarwal tweeted.
The IT action attracted angry reactions from the Congress, the Editors Guild and Bahl himself.
At a press briefing, Congress President Rahul Gandhi said: "They (government) will raid, harass, attack and suppress. That's their agenda... The government is trying to suppress the media."
Amnesty International described the IT action as "a clampdown on free press", saying that the authorities were attempting to silence anyone expressing views critical of the government.
"The Income Tax Department's survey ... raises disturbing questions on whether the news website is being targeted for speaking truth to power. It appears that the authorities are attempting to silence anyone expressing views that are critical of the government," Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty India, said in a statement.
Noted lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted: "No doubt that The Quint and Raghav Bahl are being raided by the IT department only because they have been critical of the government and in order to intimidate the media. IT, ED and CBI are being misused by this government like never before."
The Editors Guild expressed concern, saying "motivated income tax searches and surveys" will undermine media freedom.
The Guild noted that Bahl had to warn the officials that if they tried to touch anything not relevant to tax issues, he "shall seek extremely strong recourse".
In a note to the Editors Guild, Bahl said The Quint was a "fully tax compliant entity" and would provide all access to all appropriate financial documents.
The Editors Guild said in a statement that while the Tax Department was "within its right to make inquiries", it should not exercise its powers in a way that could be seen as an "intimidation of the government's critics".
"The Guild believes that motivated income tax searches and surveys will seriously undermine the media's freedom and the government should desist from such attempts," it said.
It said it was "perturbed" over Bahl's statement that he had to strongly advise the tax officials that they should not try and pick up or see any other mail or document which was likely to contain sensitive journalistic material.
Meanwhile, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: "We believe in freedom of the press and democratic values. But if any media house is involved in corruption, they have to face the consequences."
(With inputs from agencies.)