BBC attacks show India’s shrinking media freedom under Modi, some journalists say

NEW DELHI, March 4 (Reuters) – Around 11 a.m. on Feb. 14, about 20 Indian tax officials and police burst into the BBC’s offices in New Delhi, shouting at staff to get away from their computers and hand over their mobile phones, according to two people present.

At the company’s office in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, the tax authorities launched a new raid. The government said the BBC had failed to respond to repeated requests to clarify tax matters relating to profits and remittances from its Indian operations.

The BBC has said it is cooperating fully with the tax authorities and hopes to resolve matters quickly, adding that journalists will continue to report “without fear or favour”. It declined to comment for this story.

Three weeks before the raids – which the government called an “investigation” – the BBC released a two-part documentary that included an investigation into 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 fueled the violence.

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Modi’s government has called the documentary “biased” and reflects a “colonial mindset”. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told news agency ANI last week that it was “politics in a different way” and suggested the timing was intended to undermine support for Modi. The BBC has said it stands by the reporting.

The 72-year-old prime minister enjoys high approval ratings and is expected to run for re-election 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 some Indian students who tried to show it, saying it would disturb the peace. They were released shortly afterwards.

The tax audits of BBC offices – where officials cloned the mobile phones of some senior staff and searched computers, according to the two people present – have highlighted the concerns of some journalists and media rights watchdogs about what they say is a decline in press freedom under Modi.

Reuters spoke to eight Indian journalists, industry executives and media analysts who said some media that reported critically on the government have been targeted with inspections of government agencies, suspension of government advertising and arrests of journalists.

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

A criminal case filed by the tax department against Sekhri alleging tax evasion and falsification of an assessment report was thrown out by a Delhi judge in November. Sekhri has sued the government for attacks on his fundamental rights and freedom of expression; The case is being heard in the Delhi High Court.

Modi’s government has strongly denied that the BBC’s tax probe – the first against an international news organization in decades – was in 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 Broadcasting. The BBC had received more than 10 tax notices before the documentary aired, he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm this. The IRS did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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

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

The world’s most populous democracy with 1.4 billion people, India has thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television news channels.

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


The Editors Guild of India, a trade association, said the BBC raids were part of a trend of “government agencies being used to intimidate and harass news organisations.” It cited four similar tax inspections against the media in 2021.

In one of these, the offices of Dainik Bhaskar, one of India’s largest newspapers by circulation, were raided in July 2021 by tax authorities, who alleged that they evaded taxes on income worth 7 billion Indian rupees ($84.47 million). The newspaper has contested the charge and the case is ongoing.

The paper – part of DB Corp ( DBCL.NS ), one of India’s largest newspaper groups – had published a series of articles alleging that authorities mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic and underreported deaths. The government has denied wrongdoing in its response and undercounting.

A senior Dainik Bhaskar executive, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the raids followed an unexplained halt in 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 1 billion rupees ($12.25 million), he said.

A spokesman for the newspaper declined to comment. State authorities did not respond to requests for comment. When asked about the matter, Gupta, a senior adviser in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said the government did not withdraw advertisements due to critical reporting.

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

The acquisition of some media groups by billionaires seen as close to Modi has also silenced independent voices in the Indian press, it 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 late last year. However, the figures showed that expenses have decreased in recent years.

Gupta said there had been complaints after the government reduced its advertising spending, but it was not an attack on media freedom.

“Governments don’t exist to fund the media. We don’t want a media that is loyal to us or indebted to us because of the money we give them,” he said.


Reports from international press freedom watchdogs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), say that – in addition to the financial pressure on media organizations – federal and state governments in India have arrested an increasing number of journalists for their reporting.

At least seven journalists were behind bars in India in December, the highest number in 30 years, according to CPJ’s annual global tracking released on December 14.

In some cases, journalists have been arrested by state authorities – who control local police forces – after reporting on minor cases.

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

The next day, the 42-year-old reporter was arrested by police and accused of leaking the test papers himself, according to the police report reviewed by Reuters.

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

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

“They have forgotten that the job of a journalist is to highlight problems and criticize the system,” he said.

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

Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal, Aditya Kalra and Krishn Kaushik in NEW DELHI and Saurabh Sharma in LUCKNOW. Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR Editing by Daniel Flynn

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