screengrab india independent media
Modi government's BBC raid raises question about India's press freedom
02:48 - Source: CNN
New Delhi CNN  — 

Indian tax officials have ended their days-long search of the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, the British broadcaster announced Thursday. Officials had spent three days raiding the spaces following the country’s ban on a BBC documentary that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago.

“The Income Tax Authorities have left our offices in Delhi and Mumbai. We will continue to cooperate with the authorities and hope matters are resolved as soon as possible,” the BBC News Press Team said in a tweet Thursday, adding that some of its staff had “faced lengthy questioning or been required to stay overnight - and their welfare is our priority.”

“The BBC is a trusted, independent media organisation and we will stand by our colleagues and journalists who will continue to report without fear or favour,” the BBC said.

BBC employees have been told not to disclose information about the searches. Some staff members were asked to remain at the offices overnight on Tuesday, the BBC said. But the offices are now open for people to enter and leave as needed.

The searches come nearly a month after the Indian government said it banned the two-part documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” from being aired in the country and used “emergency powers” to block clips of the film from circulating on social media domestically. Twitter and YouTube complied with the order, the government said.

The documentary revives the most controversial chapter of the Indian leader’s political career, when he was the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002.

Modi was accused of not doing enough to stop some of the most heinous violence in India’s post-indpendence history, when riots broke out between the state’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims.

More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence and at least 220 more went missing, according to government figures.

Modi has denied accusations that he failed to stop the violence. A special investigation team appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2012 found no evidence to suggest he was to blame.

Two years later, Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in India, riding on a wave of Hindu nationalism in the country of 1.3 billion, where nearly 80% of the population follow the faith.

‘Brazen attack’

The government’s move to block the documentary polarized opinion in the world’s largest democracy. Critics decried it as an assault on press freedom, while Modi’s supporters rallied to his defense.

India’s main opposition Congress party described the ongoing tax searches at the BBC offices as a “brazen attack” on India’s free press.

“If someone tries to shed light on the prime minister’s past, or dig out details of his past…the present and future of that media house will be destroyed by his agencies. That is the reality,” the party’s media department head, Pawan Khera, told reporters Wednesday. “India is the mother of democracy but why is India’s prime minister the father of hypocrisy?”

The BJP has tried to justify the move by saying nobody in the country is above the law.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, the party’s spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said companies, including media agencies, must “follow and respect Indian law.”

“Anyone, any agency, whether tied to the media, a company, if they are working in India, they must follow and respect Indian law. If they follow the law, then why should they be scared or worried? Let the Income Department do its job,” he said.

The raids raised fears of censorship in India, with several media organizations issuing statements condemning the government’s actions.

Now ranked between Turkey and Sudan, India dropped eight places to 150 out of 180 nations in last year’s World Press Freedom Index published by the Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders.

The Press Club of India said in a Tuesday statement the raids “will damage the reputation and image of India as the world’s largest democracy.”

“It is deeply unfortunate as this latest instance appears to be a clear cut case of vendetta, coming within weeks of a documentary aired by the BBC,” it said, urging the government to “restrain its agencies from misusing its powers in order to intimidate the media.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that the searches had “all the hallmarks of a reprisal” for the release of the Modi documentary, adding that it took place at a time “when independent media are being hounded more and more, and when pluralism is shrinking in India due to increased media concentration.”

“It is essential that international media like the BBC can continue to operate in India without being harassed, and that the rights of journalists and, in particular, the confidentiality of their sources, are respected in this investigation,” the organization added in a statement on Thursday.

The BBC said it was “fully cooperating” with the Indian tax authorities and that its output and journalism “continues as normal.”

Britain’s Foreign Office is closely monitoring reports of the tax surveys, UK government sources said.

— Swati Gupta in New Delhi, and Martin Goillandeau and Allegra Goodwin in London contributed reporting.