Indian officials go to BBC offices again for the second day in a row

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s tax officials searched BBC offices in India for a second straight day on Wednesday questioning staff about the organization’s business operations in the country, some staff members said.

BBC management directed editorial and other staff members that they should work from home, after they had been able to leave on Tuesday night. This was according to staff who spoke on condition they would not be identified because they were not allowed to talk to the media.

These searches were made weeks after BBC aired a documentary critiquing Prime Minister Narendra Modi in U.K.

The investigation was completed without an overnight break. Some employees were told earlier not to use their smartphones and that they should be discarded, but investigators searched the computers of those employees.

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.

According to the Press Trust of India news agency, officials were copying electronic and paper-based financial information from the organization.

Opposition politicians and rights groups condemned the attempt by India’s Income Tax Department to intimidate the media.

Britain’s publicly funded national broadcaster said it was cooperating fully with authorities and hoped “to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.” Late in the evening, the BBC said officials were still at the two offices.

“Many staff have now left the building but some have been asked to remain and are continuing to cooperate with the ongoing inquiries,” it said, adding: “Our output and journalism continue as normal.”

While there has been no British government statement so far, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday: “We are aware of the search of the BBC offices in Delhi by Indian tax authorities.”

“We support the importance of a free press around the world. We are continuing to stress the importance freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, as human rights that can help strengthen democracies all over the globe. It has strengthened the democracy in this country. It has strengthened India’s democracy,” Price told reporters in Washington.

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

It stated that while the association believes no institution is above the law it condemned any attempt to intimidate and muzzle the media or interfere with the free functioning journalists and media organisations.

Gaurav Bhatia was a spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. He said that the BBC shouldn’t be worried if it follows Indian laws. But he added that the broadcaster’s history is “tainted” and “full of hatred” for India and called it corrupt, without offering any specifics.

The documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” was broadcast in the U.K. last month, examining the prime minister’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time. In the violence, more than 1,000 people died.

Modi denied that authorities under his control allowed or encouraged the bloodshed. The Supreme Court stated it did not find any evidence to bring him to trial. Last year, the court dismissed a petition filed by a Muslim victim questioning Modi’s exoneration.

The second portion of the two-part documentary examined “the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,” according to the BBC website.

India’s government reacted immediately to the program by threatening legal action. It invoked emergency powers under its information technologies laws to stop it being shown in India. Local authorities rushed to stop screenings at Indian universities. Twitter and YouTube also comply with government requests to remove the links.

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.

In recent years, India’s press freedom has been steadily declining. Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index ranked India 150th out of 180 countries. This is eight places lower than it was in previous years. Media watchdogs accuse Modi of suppressing criticism on social media through a broad internet law that places digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook under direct government supervision.

Tax searches were conducted on media outlets that have criticised the government.

On the same day, 2021, authorities searched the offices and news portal Newslaundry as well as NewsClick’s left-leaning website NewsClick. After the publication of reports about mass funeral pyres, floating corpses, and other allegations challenging the government’s handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, tax officials also accused Dainik Bhaskar newspaper (left-leaning website NewsClick) of tax evasion. According to the government’s investigative bureau, it was looking into cases of loan defaults and raided New Delhi Television’s offices in 2017.

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