New Delhi, February 14 (NDTV): Income Tax officials searched the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices today and seized phones and laptops, weeks after a massive controversy over the UK national broadcaster’s documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the deadly sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002.
The taxmen sealed off the offices for a “survey” linked to alleged diversion of profits and irregularities in transfer pricing involving the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
The survey will continue at least till tomorrow and the officials are expected to search all night at the offices. Sources say, the Income Tax authorities are checking account details dating as far back as 2012.
“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,” the BBC tweeted.
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, the BBC team said in a tweet.
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) February 14, 2023
Documents were seized and phones and laptops of journalists were taken away. Employees were allowed to leave six hours after the searches began, only after their laptops had been scanned. Visuals showed some employees arguing with the officials.
The officials used the keyword “tax” to search for information on the desktops after asking employees to log in, a BBC journalist told NDTV.
BBC, in a memo to staff, asked those not in office to stay away. It has also asked its staff to avoid commenting on social media on the searches.
Tax officials insisted that this was a survey, not a search, and that the phones would be returned.
“We needed some clarifications and for that our team is visiting BBC office and we are carrying out a survey. Our officers have gone to check account books, these are not searches,” Income Tax sources asserted, adding that they asked the BBC’s finance department for details of balance sheets and accounts.
The opposition accused the government of targeting the BBC for airing a documentary critical of PM Modi over the riots that swept Gujarat in 2002, when he was Chief Minister. The Editors Guild of India said the raids were part of a wider “trend of using government agencies to intimidate or harass press organisations that are critical of government policies”.
The two-part series, “India: The Modi Question”, was taken down from public platforms last month. The Centre used emergency powers under IT Rules to block YouTube videos and Twitter posts sharing links to the documentary. The government slammed the documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage”.
Opposition leaders and students protested against what they called blatant censorship by organising public screenings of the documentary, which led to clashes on campus between students, college authorities and the police.
“Here we are asking for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the Adani-Hindenburg row, and there the government is hounding BBC. Vinash Kaale Viprit Buddhi (when one is doomed, one makes wrong decisions),” commented Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.
Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra jibed in a tweet: “Reports of Income Tax raid at BBC’s Delhi office. Wow, really? How unexpected.”
“When a government stands for fear and oppression instead of fearlessness, then one should realise the end is near,” wrote Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav in Hindi.
The ruling BJP tore into the BBC for what it called “venomous, shallow and agenda-driven reporting” and said the Income Tax department should be allowed to do its job. “No individual or agency can be above the law. If they are working in India, they need to follow Indian law. If they have not done anything illegal, then what’s the worry? Why are the opposition parties defending the agency for cheap and petty politics,” said BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia. He also mocked the BBC as “Bhrasht, Bakwas Corporation (Corrupt, nonsensical corporation)”.
Last week, the Supreme Court rejected a request for a complete ban on BBC in India over the documentary, calling the petition “entirely misconceived”.
The Guardian adds:
There has been an increasingly pressured environment for the media since Modi came to power in 2014. Journalists and news organisations that have published work critical of the BJP government have faced harassment, raids, criminal cases and tax investigations, and India has dropped to 150 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index.
The Editors Guild of India described the actions of the income tax department as part of “the trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment”.
The BBC is just the latest organisation to be hit with a tax evasion investigation following reports that have reflected poorly on the Modi government. Tax raids have been carried out on Oxfam and several thinktanks, while Amnesty International, which had documented the erosion of human rights and persecution of minorities, had to shutter its India operations in 2020 after its accounts were frozen by a central government agency.
Amnesty called the raid on the BBC “a blatant affront” to freedom of expression. “The Indian authorities are clearly trying to harass and intimidate the BBC over its critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party,” said Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India’s board.
PTI said that there was “shock in the UK” as news of the survey unfolded early on Tuesday morning. There was a broad consensus that the action was linked to the BBC documentary, which was banned in India by the government.
“Everyone’s shocked and no one is fooled that today’s tax survey, as it’s being called, is a retaliation to the recent BBC documentary The Modi Question,” said Mukulika Banerjee, a leading author and academic at the London School of Economics (LSE).
“The BBC is an independent public broadcaster so if it puts out a documentary, it is not acting at the behest of the British government. In fact, BBC journalists routinely grill the British PM and all elected officials holding them accountable for their actions. The word ‘independent’ means just that,” she said, according to PTI.
“Finally, the Indian government has appointed India as the ‘Mother of Democracy’ during its year of the G20 Presidency and plastered posters across every inch of the country proclaiming that. It should know then that one of the basic principles of being a democracy is to recognise that press freedom is an essential central pillar of a functioning democracy. They really need to understand that this is what press freedom looks like. And stop its shameful harassment of the BBC in Delhi and Mumbai,” she added.
The South Asia Solidarity Group, a human rights organisation based in the UK, dubbed it a “blatantly vindictive move”.
“In the wake of the government’s ban on sharing extracts or screening the documentary, this raid makes it clear that the Modi government will attack all those who criticise Narendra Modi, the BJP and those close to them,” said Mukti Shah, spokesperson for the group, according to PTI.