NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian tax officials left the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai on Thursday after searching them for three days seeking information about the organization’s business operations amid allegations of tax evasion. . Opposition political parties and other media organizations criticized the move as an attempt to intimidate the media.
Television footage showed tax officials leaving in cars after spending nearly 60 hours at the BBC’s New Delhi office. They made no statement about the searches that began Tuesday morning.
“The Income Tax Authorities have left our offices in Delhi and Mumbai. We will continue to cooperate with the authorities and hope that matters are resolved as soon as possible,» BBC News said on Twitter.
“We are support staff, some of whom have faced lengthy interrogations or been asked to stay overnight, and their well-being is our priority. Our production is back on track and we remain committed to serving our audiences in India and beyond,” he said.
«The BBC is a trusted and independent media organization and we support our colleagues and journalists who will continue to report without fear or favour,» he said.
Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned the timing of the searches, which came weeks after a documentary critical of Modi was broadcast by the BBC in the UK.
Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said there was no connection between the two.
“Whether you are a media organization or a manufacturer, the purpose of tax laws applies equally to everyone. And if you are found to be in violation of those tax laws, appropriate measures are taken such as due process of law,” Gupta said in an interview with Mirror Now television news channel.
The Indian tax department has so far not issued any statement on what prompted the searches of the BBC offices.
News broadcasters and the Digital Association of India criticized income tax “polls” at BBC offices.
While the association «maintains that no institution is above the law, it condemns any attempt to gag and intimidate the media and interfere with the free functioning of journalists and media organizations,» it said in a statement on Wednesday.
The main leader of the opposition Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, described the government’s move as an assault on press freedom under the Modi government.
Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, denounced the Indian government’s action as «attempts to suppress independent media.»
“These raids look like a retaliation against the BBC for publishing a documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi three weeks ago. They have come at a time when independent media are increasingly being harassed, and when pluralism is shrinking in India due to increased media concentration,» the group said in a statement on Thursday.
The documentary, «India: The Modi Question,» was broadcast in the UK last month and examines the prime minister’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he was prime minister at the time. More than 1,000 people died in the violence.
Modi has denied allegations that authorities under his supervision allowed and even encouraged 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 challenging Modi’s exoneration.
The second part of the two-part documentary examined «the record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,» according to the BBC website.
The show prompted an immediate reaction from the Indian government, which invoked emergency powers under its information technology laws to stop it from being shown in the country. Local authorities were quick 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 vetted» and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.
“We offered the Indian government the right to respond to the issues raised in the series; he refused to respond,” the statement from him said.
India’s Foreign Ministry called the documentary a «propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative» that lacked objectivity.