India raids BBC offices over Modi’s Gujarat riots documentary
NEW DELHI: Indian tax authorities have searched the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions during deadly sectarian riots. The government, however, banned a BBC documentary over PM’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The British broadcaster saying it was “fully co-operating” with the authorities. “Questions about BBC’s structure, activities, organisation, and operations in India are within the remit of the investigation,” said an internal email sent by Liliane Landor, director of BBC World Service, to the employees.
The BBC management told editorial and other staff members to work from home after they were able to leave the office, said staff who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to talk to media.
The investigators scanned the desktops of some employees who were earlier told not to use their phones and keep them aside, the staff members said.
A New Delhi-based BBC employee said officials had been “confiscating all phones” during the tax raid.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the officials were making copies of electronic and paper-based financial data from the organisation.
India’s tax department is investigating the BBC’s “deliberate non-compliance with the transfer pricing rules” and its “vast diversion of profits”, the Indian Express newspaper reported.
According to officials, the focus of the so-called surveys is to look into “manipulation of prices for unauthorised benefits, including tax advantages”, the report said.
The tax raids came nearly a month after the BBC aired a two-part documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat, in which more than 1,000 people – most of them Muslims – were killed. Activists have put the toll at more than twice that number.
The second portion of the two-hour documentary, India: The Modi Question, examined “the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019”, according to the BBC website.
The programme drew an immediate backlash from India’s government, which invoked emergency powers under its information technology laws to block it from being shown in the country.
Local authorities scrambled to stop screenings organised at some Indian universities, and social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, complied with government requests to remove links to the documentary.
The BBC said at the time that the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series – it declined to respond,” its statement said.
India’s foreign ministry called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacked objectivity.
Falling Press Freedom Index
Press freedom in India has been on a steady decline in recent years. The country fell eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in the 2022 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders since Modi took office in 2014.
India’s News Broadcasters and Digital Association criticised the income tax “surveys” at the BBC offices.
Critical reporters, particularly women, say they are subjected to relentless campaigns of online abuse.
The Editors Guild of India said tax raids were part of a wider ”trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organisations that are critical of government policies”.
Other media outlets, international rights groups and foreign charities have found themselves subjected to scrutiny by India’s tax authorities and financial crimes investigators. Late Catholic nun Mother Teresa’s charity last year found itself temporarily starved of funds after the home ministry refused to renew its licence to receive foreign donations. Amnesty International announced it was halting operations in India after the government froze its bank accounts in 2020, following raids on its offices.
In 2021, Indian tax authorities raided a prominent newspaper and a TV channel that had been critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, triggering accusations of intimidation.
While the association “maintains that no institution is above the law, it condemns any attempt to muzzle and intimidate the media and interfere with the free functioning of journalists and media organisations”, it said in a statement. Media watchdog groups accuse the Modi government of silencing criticism on social media under a sweeping internet law that puts digital platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, under direct government oversight.
Some media outlets critical of the government have been subjected to tax searches.
Mumbai Press Club strongly condemned the Income-Tax Department raids at British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) premises in Delhi and Mumbai.
“A documentary on the Gujarat riots was aired by the broadcaster, and the searches in BBC offices come weeks after that. Media houses have been continuously attacked by the Union and some state governments for refusing to follow the government’s perspective, aimed at overawing and demoralising them,” said the Press Club in a statement.
Press Club highlighted about the income tax raids carried out at various media offices in the recent times. They also alleged that houses and offices of journalists and promoters were raided after stories of government ineptitude and failure were done by them.
Authorities searched the offices of the left-leaning website NewsClick and independent media portal Newslaundry on the same day in 2021.
Tax officials also accused the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper of tax evasion in 2021 after it published reports of mass funeral pyres and floating corpses that challenged the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure, rights activists say. The opposition Congress party condemned the raids, saying there was an “undeclared emergency” in the country.
“First came the BBC documentary, that was banned,” the party said on Twitter. “Now IT has raided BBC,” it continued, referring to the Income Tax Department. “Undeclared emergency.”
A spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the broadcaster of engaging in “anti-India propaganda”, but said the raids were lawful and the timing had nothing to do with the government.
“India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organisation,” Gaurav Bhatia told reporters, “as long as you don’t spew venom.”
“If you have been following the law of the country, if you have nothing to hide, why be afraid of an action that is according to the law?”
What happened in 2002
The 2002 riots in Gujarat began after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a fire on a train. Thirty-one Muslims were convicted of criminal conspiracy and murder over that incident.
The BBC documentary cited a previously classified British foreign ministry report quoting unnamed sources saying that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene” in the anti-Muslim violence by right-wing Hindu groups that followed the train fire.
The violence was intended “to purge Muslims from Hindu areas”, the ministry report said. The “systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and was impossible “without the climate of impunity created by the state Government”, it concluded.
Modi, who ran Gujarat from 2001 until his election as prime minister in 2014, was briefly subject to a travel ban by the United States over the violence.
A special investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court to investigate the roles of Modi and others in the violence said in 2012 it did not find any evidence to prosecute him.
Courtesy: Al Jazeera and News Agencies