Income tax officers raid BBC offices in India for second consecutive day

An armed security person at the gate of a building housing BBC office in New Delhi. (Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP)

Indian tax officials have searched the BBC's offices in New Delhi and Mumbai for a second consecutive day, and employees have been questioned about the organization's business operations in the nation, according to some staff members.

The BBC management instructed editorial and other staff members to work from home after they were permitted to leave the office on Tuesday evening, according to staff members who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

According to staff members on Wednesday, investigators checked the desktops of some employees who had been instructed not to use their phones and to set them aside. There was no break in the search over the night.

A BBC employee located in New Delhi stated that officers confiscated all phones during the tax sweep.

Since the searches of the BBC's New Delhi and Mumbai offices began on Tuesday morning, Indian income tax officials have not made any public statements.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that officials made copies of the organization's computer and paper-based financial data.

The Indian Express newspaper said India's tax agency is examining the BBC's "deliberate noncompliance with transfer pricing rules" and "vast profit diversion."

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 occurred roughly 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 were killed, the majority of them were Muslims.

According to the BBC website, the second hour of the two-hour program explored "the track record of Narendra Modi's government following his re-election in 2019."

The program prompted an instant response from the Indian government, which used emergency powers under its information technology laws to prevent its broadcast in the country.

Social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, agreed with government efforts to erase links to the video.

The BBC stated at the time that the program was "rigorously researched" and included a variety of perspectives.

"We offered the Indian government the opportunity to respond to the issues raised in the series, but they declined," the statement read.

The foreign ministry of India referred to the documentary as "propaganda designed to advance a particularly discredited narrative" that lacked objectivity.

Rights campaigners assert that press freedom in the world's largest democracy has eroded during Modi's reign. The opposition Congress party blasted the raids, claiming that the country was experiencing an "undeclared emergency."

"Initially, the BBC documentary was banned," the political party tweeted. It said, "Now IT has raided BBC," alluding to the Income Tax Department. "Undeclared state of emergency."

A spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the broadcaster of participating in "anti-India propaganda". Still, he stated that the raids were legal and the timing was unrelated to the government.

"India is a country that gives every organization a chance," Gaurav Bhatia told reporters, "as long as you don't spew poison."

"If you have been abiding by the law of the land and have nothing to hide, why should you fear legal action?"

What happened in 2002?

The riots in Gujarat in 2002 began when 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire. In this incident, 31 Muslims were convicted of criminal conspiracy and murder.

The BBC program referenced a previously classified British foreign ministry memo citing anonymous sources as suggesting that Modi met with senior police officers and "ordered them not to intervene" in the anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by right-wing Hindu organizations following the railway derailment.

The violence was aimed at "purging Muslims from Hindu areas," according to a report from the government.

It determined that the "systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing" and would not have been feasible "without the climate of impunity created by the state government."

In response to the violence, Modi, who governed Gujarat from 2001 until his election as prime minister in 2014, was briefly subject to a travel ban by the United States.

In 2012, a special investigating committee constituted by India's Supreme Court to investigate Modi and others' actions in the violence concluded that there was insufficient evidence to punish him.

Washington, which has been working to improve its relations with India, declined to comment on the BBC raid.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, stated that the United States believes in the "importance of the free press," which contributes to "strengthening democracies around the world." Still, he was "not in a position to judge" if the raid went against this belief.

Declining press freedom

Press freedom in India has steadily declined over the past few years. Reporters Without Borders' 2022 Press Freedom Index ranked the nation 150th out of 180 countries, eight places worse than in 2011.

The News Broadcasters and Digital Association of India criticized the BBC's income tax "surveys."

While the association "maintains that no institution is above the law, it condemns any attempt to silence and intimidate the media and interfere with the free operation of journalists and media organizations," stated a statement.

Media watchdog organizations accuse the Modi administration of stifling dissent on social media through a sweeping internet law that places Twitter and Facebook under direct government monitoring.

Some media organizations that criticize the government have been subject to tax audits.

On the same day in 2021, authorities searched the offices of the left-leaning website NewsClick and the independent media website Newslaundry.

In 2021, tax officials also sued the Dainik Bhaskar daily of tax cheating after it disputed the government's handling of the COVID-19 epidemic by publishing stories of mass funeral pyres and floating bodies.

Publish : 2023-02-15 15:08:00

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