More than a dozen income tax officials entered BBC newsrooms in Delhi and Mumbai simultaneously, seizing accounts, financial documents, and phones of BBC employees. The employees who had not yet come into the office were asked to stay home. More than a 100 employees were in the offices at the time. The Income – Tax survey finally ended after 60 hours. The investigation comes just weeks after the release of a BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, which angered the government. The documentary looked at the rising tensions between Modi and India’s minority Muslim population and revisited allegations that Modi was complicit in inciting religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 which killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Numerous press bodies and opposition politicians condemned the searches. 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 opposition sees it as an attempt to punish the BBC for broadcasting the documentary, India: The Modi Question, on the Indian tax agents conducted what they called “surveys” of BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai.
#WATCH | Delhi: Income Tax officials come out of the BBC office in Delhi’s KG Marg as the Income Tax department survey on the BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi concludes after almost 60 hours. pic.twitter.com/hQ2zjPvQGa
— ANI (@ANI) February 16, 2023
The United States too has made a public statement about the income tax raids at BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told the media that the US is aware of the survey operation conducted by the I-T department at the BBC office in Delhi but is not in a position to offer its judgment. He further said that a free press is significant as it contributes to strengthening democracies. “We support the importance of a free press around the world. We continue to highlight the importance of freedom and expression and freedom of religion or belief as human rights that contribute to strengthening democracies around the world. It has strengthened this democracy here in this country. It has strengthened India’s democracy,” Price asserted. When asked if India’s tax department action went against some of the spirit or value of democracy, Price said, “I couldn’t say. We’re aware of the facts of these searches, but I’m just not in a position to offer a judgment.” Jairam Ramesh, senior Congress party leader said, “The government was “hounding the BBC”.
Shashi Tharoor, Senior Congress leader tweeted , No institution is above the law, but the raids by 20 tax officials on the @BBC’s Delhi & Mumbai offices &studios are a deplorable own-goal. They will be seen worldwide as petty retaliation for the BBC documentary & as confirmation of the BJP Govt’s drive to stifle press freedom
Samajwadi Party leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav accused the government of ‘standing for fear’ and oppression. However, the BJP spokespersons and supporters were more upfront. Gaurav Bhatia, an official spokesman for the party, called the BBC “the most corrupt corporation in the world”. And on social media, pro-BJP handles directed abuse at the BBC accusing it of a colonial mindset, of having no respect for the truth and more.
Whatsoever the reasons may be behind the raids, for India it’s a tight rope walk since it is a G20 host this year and at no point freedom of speech and expression should be held up if democracy is to be retained.