South Asian media outraged as India raids BBC offices after critical documentary

Paritosh Paul and Ahammad Foyez
Kolkata, India, and Dhaka
South Asian media outraged as India raids BBC offices after critical documentary Police officers stand outside a building that hosts BBC offices, where income tax officials conducted a search, in New Delhi, Feb. 14, 2023.
[Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

South Asian media freedom advocates are outraged by Indian tax officials’ raid on BBC offices in the country weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary seen as critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Neutral institutions, including the Income Tax Department, are increasingly being used to stifle dissent in the world’s largest democracy, free speech activists said about India, which this year is the president of the Group of 20, or G20.

“Raiding the BBC’s India offices in the wake of a documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi smacks of intimidation,” said Beh Lih Yi, Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator, in a statement.

“Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before.”

Last year, tax authorities similarly raided several NGO offices, including those of Oxfam India, noted Amnesty International India’s chairman Aakar Patel.

“The overbroad powers of the Income Tax Department are repeatedly being weaponized to silence dissent,” he said in a statement.

Tuesday’s raid comes weeks after the BBC aired a documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” in the U.K. The Indian government blocked the documentary, according to local media reports.

Modi belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which espouses Hindu nationalism. He was chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 during the anti-Muslim riots when more than 1,000 people were killed.

The documentary examines the Gujarat government’s role in the riots, as well as the atmosphere for India’s 200 million Muslim community since the BJP came to power in 2014. 

As Amnesty puts it, the BBC documentary “details the rise of advocacy hatred and violence by supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and also the shrinking space for dissent in the country, since Modi came to power in 2014.”

On Tuesday, BJP spokesman Gaurav Bhatia said that if the British broadcaster was following all Indian laws, it did not have anything to be worried about, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Bhatia added that the BBC was “corrupt,” its history “tainted,” and that it was “full of hatred” for India.

Indian human rights activist Kiriti Roy called the government’s action deplorable.

“Freedom of expression is recognized by the constitution but dissenting views are suppressed and politically attacked. Neutral government institutions such as the IT Department who are supposed to act with impartiality are working at the behest of the government with political objectives,” he said.

“It is a form of state terrorism and is deplorable. This is what happens when there is no trust in democracy by those in power.”

Farooq Faisal, regional director (Bangladesh and South Asia) of Article 19, a U.K.-based rights organization, said harassing the BBC does not make the Modi government look good.

“It is difficult for any fundamentalist or authoritarian government to accept the truth. Harassing the BBC, India’s Narendra Modi government has proved that the BBC’s documentary against him is true,” Faisal told BenarNews

“Other countries, including Bangladesh, should be cautious seeing the incident in India.”

Another journalist from Bangladesh, Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, was also concerned about the effect such incidents would have on Bangladesh.

“Indian tax agents raiding BBC offices in India is clearly a terrible use of state mercenaries against independent media and freedom of expression,” said Bulbul, a former president of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists.

“Such incidents in a country like India, which has a global reputation as a liberal democracy, set a precedent for governments in countries like Bangladesh. That is a cause of serious concern for us,” he said.

In Bangladesh, for instance, critics of the government – mostly journalists, cartoonists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators and students – have been targeted by the controversial Digital Security Act. The act was passed in September 2018 after the ruling Awami League came to power for a third consecutive term.

While figures for last year are not available, Bangladesh saw a nearly ninefold increase in cases filed under the Digital Security Act in 2021.

These cases were filed for perceived online criticism of officials, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and her father, the country’s founder, compared with 2020, according to a leading human rights organization.


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