Indian tax authorities have raided a prominent newspaper and a TV channel that have been critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, triggering accusations of intimidation.
There was no official comment from authorities on the raids on Thursday against Hindi-language daily Dainik Bhaskar and the Bharat Samachar station.
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Local media reported the tax department launched search operations in various locations, including in the capital, New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra states. They quoted unnamed tax officials as saying they had “conclusive evidence of fraud”.
Boasting a readership of millions, Bhaskar has carried a series of reports on the devastation caused by the pandemic in April and May and criticised the management of the crisis by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On the main page of its website, a headline said the government’s move was due to its fear of “true journalism” and stressed that the news outlets had sought to “keep the correct death toll of the coronavirus pandemic in front of the country”.
“Be it the matter of [throwing] dead bodies in the Ganges or … hiding deaths due to corona[virus], Bhaskar showed fearless journalism,” it said.
Most experts believe India’s official death toll of more than 414,000 is a vast undercount but the government has dismissed those concerns as exaggerated and misleading.
The most comprehensive research yet on the ravages of the pandemic released on Tuesday said the country’s excess deaths could be a staggering 10 times the official death toll, likely making it modern India’s worst human tragedy.
‘Not an iota of criticism’
Modi’s government has long been accused of attempting to stifle critical reporting in the world’s biggest democracy, something it denies. On Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom Index, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries.
Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan state, said the raids were a brazen attempt to suppress the media.
“Modi government cannot tolerate even an iota of its criticism,” Gehlot, who is from the main opposition Congress party, wrote on Twitter.
Modi was accused on Tuesday by the Congress party of “treason” and compromising national security following revelations that dozens of Indians were potential targets of snooping by the Israeli-made spyware Pegasus.
It came on the back of a major investigation published on Sunday by a consortium of media organisations.
The leaked list, shared with the news outlets by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and rights group Amnesty International, showed the identities of people targeted with more than 300 of those phone numbers in India, including politicians, dozens of journalists, businessmen and even two ministers in the Modi government.
Arfa Khanum Sherwani, a senior editor of The Wire publication, said on Twitter the raids against the news outlets were “undoubtedly the first major impact of Pegasus Expose”, showing how “nervous the government is”.
First Dainik Bhaskar and now Bharat Samachar of UP, last few Hindi News organisations which spoke truth to power, are being attacked.
This is undoubtedly the first major impact of Pegasus Expose and how nervous the Govt is.
Jab jab ye sarkar darti hai,Agencies ko aage karti hai..
— Arfa Khanum Sherwani (@khanumarfa) July 22, 2021