Indian tax officials on Tuesday searched BBC news bureaux in the country’s two largest cities, weeks after the broadcaster aired reports critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions during deadly religious riots in Gujarat when he was the state’s top ruling official.
“The Income tax authorities are currently at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and we are fully cooperating,” the British broadcaster said in a brief statement. “We hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.”
The BBC’s World Service reported that in New Delhi officials said they had a warrant for the search, and that some employees’ phones had been taken. Calls to some of its reporters on Tuesday afternoon went unanswered.
“The Indian tax authorities are conducting searches at BBC offices in Delhi & Mumbai,” Jannat Jalil, a BBC World Service journalist and presenter, said on Twitter. “This comes weeks after a BBC documentary questioned the role of PM Narendra Modi during the Gujarat riots in 2002.”
A spokesperson for India’s income tax department told the Financial Times that she could only confirm that the agency was “doing some action” at the BBC. “It is a limited action, a survey,” she said, and denied the raids were “a search operation, as wrongly quoted in the media”.
The BBC last month aired a two-part documentary that raised questions about Modi’s actions during the 2002 religious riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly from the minority Muslim population, died. The report claimed that Modi, who served as Gujarat’s chief minister at the time before rising to national office in 2014, was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence.
His government rejected the film as a “propaganda piece” and the product of a “colonial mindset”, and invoked an emergency law to block it from being circulated online, but many Indians used virtual private networks to watch it.
India has a record of conducting tax or regulatory inspections of institutions and companies that are out of official favour. Last year it sent tax inspectors to investigate a leading think-tank, the local arm of Oxfam, and a fund that supports independent news outlets.
Chinese mobile phone makers and gaming companies have also been subjected to tax inspections recently against the backdrop of worsening Sino-Indian tensions.
India’s ranking on press freedom indices has been sliding in recent years, as media outlets and journalists that criticise the Modi government or other ruling officials face lawsuits and pressure from the government or advertisers not to publish controversial reports.
Reporters Without Borders ranked India 150th worldwide for press freedoms in 2022, down from 142 the year before. The watchdog said that while the Indian press was formerly progressive, “things changed radically” when Modi became prime minister and engineered a “spectacular rapprochement” between the ruling Bharatiya Janata party and the large family owners dominating the media.
Adani, the industrial group at the heart of a widening controversy over corporate governance, recently acquired NDTV, a leading broadcaster, after a hostile takeover that fuelled concerns about editorial independence.