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Tax authorities in India raid the BBC weeks after it aired critical Modi documentary

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Less than a month after the BBC released a documentary critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tax authorities raided the British broadcaster's offices in Mumbai and Delhi. The raids that continue for a second day have raised concerns about press freedom in a country that's been touted as the world's largest democracy. From Delhi, Shalu Yadav has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: Big story we are breaking at this hour. The BBC office in Delhi has been raided by the...

SHALU YADAV, BYLINE: Tuesday morning started on an anxious note for BBC News staff in India. Income tax officials suddenly turned up at their offices in Delhi and Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: Up there at the fifth floor - what we have been told. I'm reporting, again, let me tell you, from the (inaudible)...

YADAV: And the British broadcaster became the center of the news here. The raids come just weeks after the BBC aired a two-part documentary in the U.K. which highlighted the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the anti-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat in 2002. Modi was then the chief minister of the state. Responding to the raid, a spokesperson for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party - or the BJP - Gaurav Bhatia, accused the BBC of smearing India and called it, quote, "the world's most corrupt and rubbish corporation."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAURAV BHATIA: There is a reporting that was done by the BBC. In a program, they unleashed the most venomous attack against our country.

YADAV: The BBC said the film was rigorously researched, and a wide range of voices were included in the documentary, including those from the BJP. But there has been a fallout. BBC journalists working in India say they are alarmed by the raid. One of them told NPR that the tax officials took his and his colleagues' phones away and asked them to leave their working station. We're not using his name and are using a voice actor because he's not authorized to speak to the media, and he worries about retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Through voice actor) The officials were searching for some keywords in the employees' computers. Our work was hampered. The mood in the office was grim while the search lasted.

YADAV: In a statement, the BBC said it was supporting its staff during this time and that its output continues as normal. Critics say the raid adds further evidence to India's checkered record on press freedom, which now ranks 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Amnesty International, which pulled out of India in 2020, says tax raids on the BBC are, quote, "an affront to free speech."

JYOTI MALHOTRA: What they're saying is that you better fall in line. And what really shocks me is that, actually, Prime Minister Modi has a huge reputation globally. He is the leader of the world's largest democracy.

YADAV: Jyoti Malhotra, a senior journalist and a media critic in Delhi, says that the government's move might have the opposite effect than work in Modi's favor.

MALHOTRA: For the government to show that it's doing this at a time when the government wants to project India's image abroad as being one of a vibrant democracy, I think this is just going to have absolutely the opposite effect, and it shows a certain insecurity in asserting brittleness on the part of the government.

YADAV: But for now, the message is clear. India's trouble with media that has continued under the Modi government wouldn't spare even one of the world's most influential broadcasters.

For NPR News, I'm Shalu Yadav in Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "CITY JEWELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalu Yadav
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