Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices and seized its journalists’ phones in a stunning — and apparently retaliatory — move on Tuesday (February 14), says The Washington Post. This Valentine Day move against the British broadcaster came weeks after it aired a polarizing documentary examining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise and his handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
‘Not a raid, but a survey’
The Press Trust of India, reported that the Income Tax Department conducted a ‘survey operation ‘at the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai as part of a tax evasion investigation. The agencyquoted department sources and stated ‘The department is looking at documents related to the business operations of the company and those related to its Indian arm. As part of a survey, the Income Tax Department only covers the business premises of a company and does not raid residences and other locations of its promoters or directors.
However, Indian media outlets said more than 50 Indian officials raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai around noon. Two BBC journalists in New Delhi, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said their colleagues’ phones were being confiscated.
In a tweet, the BBC said it was “fully cooperating” with the tax authorities in its New Delhi and Mumbai offices. “We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.”
The raids on the BBC mirrored previous government actions against Indian news outlets that were critical of the ruling party as critical. Obserevers say that it shows shrinking press freedoms and rising authoritarianism in India.
They took place less than a month after the Modi government took extraordinary measures to censor “India: The Modi Question,” a BBC film that resurfaced decades-old allegations that Modi failed to stop a bloody riot in Gujarat state while he served as chief minister in 2002.
Press Club of India statement
The BBC searches “are part of a series of attacks on the media by government agencies in recent times, especially against those sections of the media that the government perceives is hostile to it and critical of the ruling establishment,” the Press Club of India said in a statement.
“It is deeply unfortunate as this latest instance appears to be a clear cut case of vendetta, coming within weeks of a documentary aired by the BBC. … We are deeply concerned and distressed that such an action on an international broadcasting network will damage the reputation and image of India as the largest democracy in the world.”
After the BBC documentary aired in Britain on Jan. 17, Indian authorities lashed out at the company for producing “propaganda,” cited emergency powers to force social media companies to remove links to the BBC’s videos, and deployed riot police and detained student protesters to stop viewing parties that were being organized on campuses across the country, says a report in the Washington Times.
Since the documentary aired, some right-wing organizations, such as the Hindu Sena, have petitioned the courts to ban the BBC, while other pro-government outlets, including Republic TV, have circulated a conspiracy theory that the British broadcaster is an agent of the Chinese Communist Party. (In China, the BBC is frequently criticized by government officials, and its journalists are occasionally assaulted by security forces.)
“I certainly believe there is a Chinese hand behind it. The BBC made no disclosure about this,” Mahesh Jethmalani, a BJP member of Parliament, said Tuesday in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. “There has been both overt and insidious anti-Indian propaganda by the BBC for a long time, and enough is enough.”
The Indian National Congress has condemned the move against the BBC, with one member of Parliament calling it “imbecile, childish & beyond even silly,” in a tweet. India is “telling the world that rather than an emerging great power we are an insecure power. Whichever bright spark thought this one up is the Prime Minister’s worst enemy,” said Manish Tewari, a former minister of information.
While Indian media outlets that have published reports drawing the government’s ire have often faced tax scrutiny, the BBC is the first international organization to be raided.
In the 2022 edition of the annual press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, India fell to 150th place out of 180 countries.