Indian tax authorities have raided the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the country in the wake of a documentary that examined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots, according to the BBC.
In a tweet, the BBC news department’s press office on Tuesday said the tax authorities were “currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and we are fully cooperating”.
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“We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible,” the statement said.
A source at the company told Al Jazeera that employees’ laptops and mobile phones had been seized. Those in the offices at the time of the raid were not allowed to leave and employees scheduled for night shifts were told not to come in pending further advice, the source said.
The Income Tax Authorities are currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and we are fully cooperating.
We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) February 14, 2023
The tax department did not respond to emails, messages and calls seeking comment.
India’s foreign ministry on January 19 said the documentary was “propaganda”.
The BBC has stood by its reporting in the programme, saying it was “rigorously researched according to the highest editorial standards” and contained a wide array of voices and perspectives.
BBC documentary banned
The raids come weeks after Modi’s government banned the documentary – titled India: The Modi Question – that probed his role in the anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.
More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in one of the worst incidents of religious violence in independent India. The violence erupted after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59.
The documentary, which was not officially made available in India, but was uploaded on several social media platforms and shared widely, also revealed for the first time an unreleased United Kingdom government report that said the events had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”. The report said Modi was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the violence, and that he had ordered senior police officers not to intervene.
But the Indian leader has rejected accusations that he did not do enough to prevent the riots. He has since been cleared by India’s top court.
The Editors Guild of India, which calls itself a non-partisan association of editorial leaders, said it was deeply concerned by the visits by the tax officers.
“It is 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 in a statement.
It said the department similarly searched the offices of the media outlets NewsClick, Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar in 2021 following their “critical coverage of the government establishment”.
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,” said BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal.
The main opposition Congress party condemned the tax department’s action.
“The IT raid at BBC’s offices reeks of desperation and shows that the Modi government is scared of criticism,” politician and Congress party General Secretary KC Venugopal wrote on Twitter.
“We condemn these intimidation tactics in the harshest terms. This undemocratic and dictatorial attitude cannot go on any longer.”
Efforts by the government to block the documentary’s spread on YouTube and Twitter have created a political maelstrom for Modi ahead of general elections in 2024.
Authorities and university officials have also sought to stop screenings of the documentary, with police in New Delhi most recently arresting students who had gathered to watch the film, which tracked Modi’s early years as a politician and his rise through the ranks of the governing Hindu nationalist BJP.
International rights groups have accused Modi’s government of suppressing free speech and abusing the emergency blocking provision of the country’s controversial Information Technology Rules 2021.
The legal community in India has been divided over whether the specific rule cited by the government, which allows it to block any online news content in the country if it threatens national security, can still be used since several high courts have stayed parts of the legislation.
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that ordering social media platforms to block the documentary constitutes “an attack on the free press that flagrantly contradicts the country’s stated commitment to democratic ideals”.
India has fallen to 150th place of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, the country’s lowest position ever.
Media outlets, international rights groups and foreign charities have also found themselves subjected to scrutiny by India’s tax authorities and financial crimes investigators.
Amnesty International announced it was halting operations in India after the government froze its bank accounts in 2020, following raids on its offices.
Critics have long accused the BJP of pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda that targets and persecutes Muslims, and since Modi came to power in 2014, attacks against Muslims have risen.
Modi’s government has passed discriminatory laws that target Muslims, with many young activists jailed for speaking out against its policies.