Indian tax officers searched the BBC’s bureaus in New Delhi and Mumbai yesterday, the British broadcaster said, weeks after the government banned as propaganda a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in riots in 2002.
The documentary focused on the Hindu nationalist politician’s leadership as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat during the riots in which at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims, though activists put the toll at more than twice that number.
The tax officers were still at the bureau late yesterday. The BBC said some staff had been asked to remain at the bureau, while many had left.
“Our output and journalism continue as normal and we are committed to serving our audiences in India,” it said.
The government last month dismissed the documentary, India: The Modi Question, as propaganda and blocked its streaming and sharing on social media. The foreign ministry said last month the documentary was meant to push a “discredited narrative”, was biased, lacked objectivity and showed a “continuing colonial mindset”.
The BBC has stood by its reporting for the documentary and said it was cooperating with Indian tax officials.
“The Income Tax Authorities are currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and we are fully co-operating. We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” the BBC said on Twitter earlier in the day.
An Income Tax Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a “credible survey operation was ongoing” and that the department would not be able to share details. The department did not respond to a Reuters email seeking comment.
A survey conducted by the Income Tax Department allows officials to collect any information which it deems useful. The officials can retain any books or documents, said Delhi-based senior advocate Tarun Gulati.
A survey differs from a search and seizure operation, commonly known as a raid, with the latter being more invasive, Gulati said.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was closely monitoring reports of tax surveys conducted at the BBC’s offices. Media rights advocates and India’s opposition condemned the searches.
One of two sources in the BBC’s New Delhi office told Reuters earlier in the day that tax officials were speaking with the accounts officer and no one was allowed to leave.
Another source at the organisation said the office was allowed to function as usual while the survey was on, but declined to say if officials entered the newsroom or not.
While the tax search was in progress, television news crews set up outside the BBC office near Connaught Place in central Delhi to report developments, as police and private security guards tried to keep order and prevented dozens of journalists from entering the compound.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said Indian institutions worked independently and the tax department was “within the law in looking into tax compliance”.
“India is a vibrant democracy where no-one is above the law,” BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said.
Following the news, online searches for “India Narendra Modi documentary” surged globally as people looked to download it. The Editors Guild of India, which calls itself a non-partisan association of editorial leaders, said it was “distressed by the continuing trend of government agencies being used to intimidate and harass news organisations that are critical of the ruling establishment”.
It said the department searched the offices of media outlets NewsClick, Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar in 2021 after their “critical coverage” of the government.
The Asia desk of the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Twitter that “authorities must not harass journalists doing their jobs”.
The main opposition Congress party condemned the tax department’s action. “... (it) reeks of desperation and shows that the Modi government is scared of criticism,” lawmaker and Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal wrote on Twitter. The documentary covers events from February 2002, when a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, setting off one of independent India’s worst outbreaks of communal violence.
Modi ruled Gujarat for more than a decade before becoming prime minister in 2014.
His career has been dogged by accusations that he did not do enough to stop the rioting in 2002. Modi has always denied any wrongdoing and in 2013, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
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