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Govt of India order "prohibits" foreign-funded NGO trustees to work as independent mediapersons

By Rajiv Shah
It is now official. In what may be interpreted as yet another attack on the free functioning of non-government organizations (NGOs) in India, the Government of India has expressed the view, in black and white, that the trustees of society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, and receiving foreign contribution under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), cannot be allowed to work as independent mediapersons.
This has come to light in one of the several objections raised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India, regarding reasons given to prominent human rights activist Teesta Setalvad on why MHA has decided to suspend FCRA license of Sabrang Trust, which she heads along with her husband, Javed Anand.
The MHA objection, in its order dated September 9, 2015, quotes the FCRA, 2010 to say that trustee of such an NGO is “prohibited” to be a “correspondent, columnist, cartoonist, owner, printer or publisher or owner”.
Referring to Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand as “chief functionary/trustee” of Sabrang Trust, the MHA letter says, during investigations it was found that they also worked as “directors, co-editors, printers and publishers in a company, namely, Sabrang Communications and Publishers Pvt Ltd (SCPPL)”, and “published a magazine called 'Communalism Combat'.”
Anand and Setalvad left their jobs as Mumbai-based journalists in the mainstream press and founded "Communalism Combat" in 1993 to fight religious intolerance and communal violence. Their decision followed the December 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists. Communalism Combat first appeared in August 1993.
The objection further goes on to suggest: Not only do both of them own “Communalism Combat”, which has been registered under the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, with the registration number being RNI No MAHEG/1993-1148, they have done a "crime" of writing in different newspapers, too.
The order, raising the objection in black and white, says, “Further, both (Setalvad and Anand) from time to time keep writing various articles in newspapers and magazines”, adding, “As per the provisions of the … FCRA, 2010 they are completely prohibited to take foreign contribution from foreign source”, if they do it, calling this as violation of Section 3 (1) (b) and (h) of the Act.
Setalvad and Anand are not only chief functionaries and trustees of Sabrang Trust, which has been receiving foreign contribution under the FCRA. They are also journalists, as co-editors of “Communalism Combat”, published by a company.
In fact, Setalvad, as journalist, recently conducted a series interviews for “Communalism Combat” and Hillele TV, a youtube.com blog, with several personalities, including prominent historian Prof Romila Thapar, well-known rural expert and journalist P Sainath, film director Hansal Mehta, CPI-M leader Brinda Karat, ex-topcop Julio Robeiro, among others.
On the other hand, as a social activist, Setalvad, it is well known, has been fighting a legal battle against the Gujarat government for filing a first information report (FIR) against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged participation in the 2002 anti-minority riots in Gujarat. Her legal interventions have already helped bring to books more than 100 persons responsible for perpetrating the riots.
In the reply dated October 5 to the MHA order barring foreign contribution to Setalvad-led Sabrang Trust, Javed Anand, who is its secretary and chief functionary, has said, while the trust is not allowed to “bring out any publication (registered under the PRB Act, 1867) or act as correspondent, columnist, editor, printer and publisher or a publisher or a registered newspaper”, as required by the FCRA, how can the same standard be applied to the SCPPL, which is an independent company?
In fact, Anand insists in his letter to the MHA, there cannot be any “restriction or prohibition” on any of the board members or office bearers of the Sabrang Trust to be “publishers, editors, printers, etc. of a registered newspaper by some other independent legal entity.”
In fact, he quotes FCRA's Section 4 to say that the trustees or office bearers, even as acting as journalists or publishers of a newspaper, can even continue to draw “salary, wages, or other renumeration due to him or to any group of persons working under him from any source by way of payment in the ordinary way of business transacted in India by … foreign source.”

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