Raids by Indian tax authorities on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices are a “blatant attack on press freedoms”, a British MP has claimed, as critics continue to suggest the motives behind the searches were disingenuous. Jim Shannon MP accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of issuing a “reprisal against the BBC” after the corporation released a documentary discussing his alleged role in mass violence against India’s Muslim population in the early 2000s. While the Indian Government claimed the raids were as a result of the BBC’s alleged “diversion of profits, tax evasion and non-compliance with Indian laws”, journalists and politicians outside of the country have suggested the searches were an attempt to “silence critics”.
On February 14 last week, scores of Income Tax (IT) Department officials raided the two BBC offices in Mumbai and the capital of New Delhi, seizing numerous documents, laptops and cellphones, as well as conducting extensive interviews of the present journalists.
The tax officials allegedly confined the journalists and other employees of the two buildings to their offices for hours on end while they conducted their raids, with the BBC tweeting on Thursday last week that “some of [the staff] have faced lengthy questioning or been required to stay overnight”.
Over the weekend, the IT Department released a statement claiming to have “uncovered irregularities,” adding that the income and profits of the corporation are “not commensurate with the scale of (its) operations in India”.
They said the raids had been part of a routine check and dismissed rumours that they had acted on behalf of Mr Modi by way of response to the BBC’s documentary discussing his alleged involvement in mass violence against the Muslim population in India in 2002.
Kanchan Gupta, an adviser at the ministry of information and broadcasting, said after the raids: “There is absolutely no correlation between what the BBC has put out and what the income tax authorities in India have done.”
In January, the BBC published a two-part documentary, entitled India: The Modi Question, examining the role Narendra Modi played in instigating and enabling the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Muslims during religious riots.
While there was no new evidence put forward regarding Modi’s involvement, for which the nation’s supreme court cleared him in 2012, the BBC cited previously unreported UK diplomatic cables that had concluded at the time that the violence had been well-orchestrated, bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and that “Narendra Modi [had been] directly responsible”.
Critics of the Hindu leader are now speaking out, suggesting these raids are the latest attempts by Mr Modi’s Government to “silence critics”.
Since Mr Modi became Prime Minister in May of 2014, India has dropped down to 150 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.
Raqib Hameed Naik, an Indian journalist based in the US who monitors hate speech and disinformation on Hindu nationalist social media, said this was in part because officials were pushing fake allegations on Twitter, that they may be recirculated by the public, end up on mainstream Indian media and then warrant raids.
He claimed these fake allegations were frequently made against corporations that showed little to no signs of illicit activity but were critical of the Indian Government under Mr Modi.
Two weeks prior to the two raids of the BBC offices, Republic TV, India’s hardline and overwhelmingly popular news channel, ran a long debate that concluded the BBC was “funded by China”, despite the only information linked to this claim being that the BBC had accepted advertising revenue from the Chinese company Huawei, as published by The Spectator.
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“It was a pattern we’ve seen so many times before,” said Mr Naik. “These fake allegations are first pushed by rightwing IT cells on Twitter, then they make it onto primetime television debates and eventually they end up with raids by government agencies.
“The aim is always the same, to silence critics of the government. They’re trying to create this single echo chamber, where only their message resonates and all the critical media is silenced.”
Following the claims by Jim Shannon MP that the Indian raids were a “blatant attack on press freedoms”, David Rutley MP, minister for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was called to address the allegations.
He said that while he “cannot comment on the allegations made by India’s income tax department”, respect for the rule of law is an “essential element of an effective democracy, so too is an independent media and freedom of speech”.
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