India tax officials search BBC offices for a second straight day

Raids came weeks after the government banned a BBC documentary critical of PM Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Indian tax officers have searched the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai for a second straight day, with 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 on Wednesday.

The BBC management told editorial and other staff members to work from home after they were able to leave the office on Tuesday night, said staff who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to talk to media.

There was no overnight break in the search and investigators scanned the desktops of some employees who were earlier told not to use their phones and keep them aside, the staff members said on Wednesday.

A New Delhi-based BBC employee said officials had been “confiscating all phones” during the tax raid.

Indian income tax officials have not made any statements since the searches were launched in the BBC’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices on Tuesday morning.

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Reporters outside a New Delhi building having BBC offices, where income tax raids were conducted for a second day [Altaf Hussain/Reuters]

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.

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An armed security person at the gate of a building housing BBC office in New Delhi [Altaf Qadri/AP]

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.

Washington, which has been building relations with India, declined to weigh in on the BBC raid.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US believed in the “importance of free press” which contributes to “strengthening democracies around the world” but that he was “not in a position to offer a judgement” on whether the raid went counter to that.

Declining press freedom

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.

India’s News Broadcasters and Digital Association criticised the income tax “surveys” at the BBC offices.

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.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies