By PIYUSH NAGPAL and CHONCHUI NGASHANGVA
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 told editorial and other staff members to work from home after they were able to leave the office on Tuesday night, said staff who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to media.
The searches came weeks after the BBC aired a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the U.K.
There was no overnight break in the search and investigators scanned the desktops of some employees who were earlier told not to use their phones and keep them aside, the staff members said.
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.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the officials were making copies of electronic and paper-based financial data from the organization.
Rights groups and opposition politicians denounced the move by India’s Income Tax Department as an attempt 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 continue to highlight the importance of freedom of 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 told reporters in Washington.
India’s News Broadcasters and Digital Association criticized the income tax “surveys” at the BBC offices.
While the association “maintains that no institution is above the law, it condemns any attempt to muzzle and intimidate the media and interfere with the free functioning of journalists and media organizations,” it said in a statement.
Gaurav Bhatia, a spokesperson for Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said the BBC should have nothing to fear 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. More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence.
Modi has denied allegations that authorities under his watch allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed, and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to prosecute him. 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.
The program drew an immediate backlash from India’s government, which invoked emergency powers under its information technology laws to block it from being shown in the country. Local authorities scrambled to stop screenings organized at Indian universities, and social media platforms including Twitter and YouTube complied with government requests to remove links to the documentary.
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.
Press freedom in India has been on a steady decline in recent years. The country fell eight places, to 150 out of 180 countries, in the 2022 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. Media watchdog groups accuse the Modi government of silencing criticism on social media under a sweeping internet law that puts digital platforms including Twitter and Facebook under direct government oversight.
Some media outlets critical of the government have been subjected to tax searches.
Authorities searched the offices of the left-leaning website NewsClick and independent media portal Newslaundry on the same day in 2021. Tax officials also accused the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper of tax evasion in 2021 after it published reports of mass funeral pyres and floating corpses that challenged the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, the government’s investigation bureau said it was probing cases of loan defaults when it raided the offices of New Delhi Television, known for its liberal slant.
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