BBC raids show shrinking media freedom in India under Modi, some journalists say By Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand outside a building with BBC offices, where income tax officers are conducting a search, in New Delhi, India February 14, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By Krishn Kaushik, Devjyot Ghoshal, Saurabh Sharma and Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Around 11 a.m. on February 14, around 20 Indian tax officials and police officers stormed the BBC offices in New Delhi, shouting at staff to get away from their computers and give them their cell phones, according to two people. gift.

At the company’s office in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, tax authorities have launched a second search. The government said the BBC had failed to respond to repeated requests for clarification of its tax affairs relating to profits and remittances from its Indian operations.

The BBC said it was cooperating fully with the tax authorities and hoped to resolve the issues quickly, adding that its journalists would continue to report “without fear or favour”. He declined to comment for this story.

Three weeks before the raids – which the government called an “inquiry” – the BBC released a two-part documentary which included an examination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in sectarian riots in his home state of Gujarat, in 2002, when he was chief minister there. . The documentary, which aired only in Britain, accused Modi of fostering a climate of impunity that has fueled violence.

Modi’s government called the documentary “one-sided” and reflecting a “colonial mindset”. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told ANI news agency last week that it was “politics by another means” and suggested his timing was aimed at undermining support for Modi. The BBC said it was sticking to reporting.

The 72-year-old prime minister enjoys a high approval rating and is set to stand in elections next year for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In late January, Indian authorities ordered the removal of social media posts sharing the documentary and police arrested Indian students who attempted to screen it, saying it would disturb the peace. They were released shortly thereafter.

Tax audits at BBC offices – during which officials cloned the mobile phones of some senior executives and searched computers, according to the two people present – have highlighted the concerns of some journalists and media rights monitors facing what they call the decline of press freedom under Modi.

Reuters spoke to eight Indian journalists, industry executives and media analysts who said some outlets that criticized the government have been targets of inspections by government agencies, suspension of advertising of State and the arrest of journalists.

“There was never a golden age for Indian journalism,” said Abhinandan Sekhri, chief executive of independent online media group Newslaundry, whose offices in New Delhi have twice been questioned by authorities. taxes in 2021 after critical coverage of Modi’s administration. “But it’s never been like that now.”

A criminal case filed by the Revenue Department against Sekhri alleging tax evasion and a false valuation report was dismissed by a Delhi judge in November. Sekhri sued the government for violating his fundamental rights and freedom of expression; the case is being heard in the Delhi High Court.

Modi’s government strenuously denied the BBC tax inspection – the first against an international news organization in decades – was a response to the film.

“The BBC operates under two private companies in India: like any other foreign company, they are open to scrutiny and tax laws apply to them,” said Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser at the Ministry of Information and Communication. Broadcasting. The BBC had received more than 10 tax notices before the documentary aired, he said.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm this. The tax agency did not respond to request for comment for this story.

Since Modi took office in 2014, India has fallen from 140th place in the World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking by the non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders, to 150th place last year, the lowest ever recorded.

Modi’s government rejects the index’s findings, questions its methodology, and says India has a free and vibrant press.

The most populous democracy in the world with 1.4 billion people, India has thousands of newspapers and hundreds of TV news channels.

Gupta, the information ministry adviser, denied that any government agency targeted the media in response to the coverage, or suspended any publicity. He said the government has repeatedly said harassment of journalists is unacceptable and against the law.


The Editors Guild of India, an industry association, said the BBC raids were part of a trend that “government agencies are being used to intimidate and harass news outlets”. He cited four similar tax audits against the media in 2021.

In one, the offices of Dainik Bhaskar, one of India’s largest newspapers by circulation, was raided in July 2021 by tax authorities, who alleged it had evaded tax. income worth 7 billion Indian rupees ($84.47 million). The newspaper disputed the charge and the case is ongoing.

The newspaper – part of DB Corp, one of India’s biggest news groups – had published a series of articles alleging authorities had mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic and underreported deaths. The government denied errors in its response and undercounting.

A senior Dainik Bhaskar executive, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the raids followed an unexplained halt to advertising by the federal government and six BJP-controlled states from February 2021. The suspension lasted until August 2022 and cost the newspaper more than one billion rupees ($12.25 million), he said.

A spokesperson for the newspaper declined to comment. State governments did not respond to requests for comment. Asked about the case, Gupta, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said the government had not taken down the advertisement because of critical reporting.

In a report last year, Reporters Without Borders said that despite high readership, many Indian news outlets were vulnerable to economic pressures due to their reliance on government advertising.

The acquisition of some media groups by billionaires seen as close to Modi has also silenced independent voices in the Indian press, he said.

Between 2014 and early December 2022, the federal government spent 64.9 billion Indian rupees ($784.34 million) on advertising in print and electronic media, it said in a statement to Parliament at the end of from last year. However, figures show that spending has fallen in recent years.

Gupta said there were complaints after the government cut advertising spending, but it was not an attack on media freedom.

“The government doesn’t exist to fund the media. We don’t want media that is loyal to us or beholden to us because of the money we give them,” he said.


Reports from international press freedom watchdogs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), indicate that in addition to financial pressures on the media, India’s federal and state governments have detained a number growing number of journalists for their reporting.

At least seven journalists remained behind bars in India as of December, the highest number in 30 years, according to CPJ’s annual global tracker published on December 14.

In some cases, journalists have been detained by state governments – which control local police forces – after reporting minor issues.

On March 29, 2022, Ajeet Ojha, a reporter for the Hindi-language newspaper Amar Ujala in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, wrote an article about high school exam papers leaked to students in the city in advance. from Balia. Ojha wrote that an investigation into who leaked the papers was ongoing.

The next day, the 42-year-old journalist was arrested by police and charged with disclosing the test papers himself, according to the police report, reviewed by Reuters.

“I spent 27 nights in jail,” Ojha said, adding that he still faces two counts, although police have dropped some criminal charges. Balia police did not respond to requests for comment.

Gyanendra Shukla, a veteran journalist who led the campaign for Ojha’s release, said the BJP-controlled state government viewed “criticism as an enemy”.

“They forgot that a journalist’s job is to highlight problems and criticize the system,” he said.

The Uttar Pradesh government did not respond to requests for comment. Gupta, the department’s adviser, said the arrest was a matter for state authorities.

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