Modi’s BBC police raid is an attack on the free press, but it’s under assault everywhere

Modi travels in a heavily guarded vehicle, tax raids on BBC offices in India
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Just weeks after the BBC aired a documentary examining Indian prime minister Narendra Modi‘s role in deadly 2002 sectarian riots, tax inspectors descended on the broadcaster’s offices in India.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party says the two are not connected. However, rights groups say the raids show the parlous state of press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy. Unfavourable reporting has seen outlets and journalists targeted and harassed.


The lockdown of the BBC‘s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai is the latest of several similar “search and survey” operations against the press. Kunal Majumdar of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Agence France-Presse (AFP):

Unfortunately, this is becoming a trend, there is no shying away from that.

Four Indian outlets that had critically reported on the government were raided by tax officers or financial crimes investigators in the past two years, he said.

As with the BBC raids, those outlets said officials took phones and checked computers used by journalists. Majumdar continued:

When you have authorities trying to go through your material, go through your work, that’s intimidation. The international community ought to wake up and start taking this matter seriously.

Read on...

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Damning documentary

Modi was governor of Gujarat province when extremist riots killed at least 1,000 people in 2002 – most of them minority Muslims. Modi’s party favours an extreme form of Hindu nationalism with fascistic tendencies.

However, major western powers back Modi to the hilt. Accordingly, Rishi Sunak was warmly endorsed by Modi when he was appointed:

In fact, the BBC documentary on Modi cited a British foreign ministry report claiming that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene” in anti-Muslim violence. The BBC documentary did not air in India. It did, however provoke a furious response from the government, which dismissed its contents as “hostile propaganda”.

Gaurav Bhatia, a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, said this week’s raids on the BBC offices were lawful and the timing had nothing to do with the documentary’s broadcast. Even so, authorities used information technology laws to ban the sharing of links to the programme in an effort to stop its spread on social media. Modi was interviewed in the documentary and was asked whether he could have handled the anti-Muslim atrocity differently. His response was that his main weakness was not knowing “how to handle the media”.

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of India’s Caravan magazine, told AFP:

That’s been something he has been taking care of since. That sums up his attitude.

Freedom in the west?

Journalists have long faced harassment, legal threats and intimidation for their work in India. According to the Free Speech Collective more criminal cases are being lodged against reporters than ever. Criminal complaints were issued against a record 67 journalists in 2020, the latest year for which figures are available, the local civil society group reported. Ten journalists were behind bars in India at the start of the year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

That said, it would be a mistake to suggest attacks on press freedom are an Indian – or ‘developing’ world – issue. The UK itself currently sits at 24th in the Reporters without Borders press freedom index:

Worrisome governmental legislative proposals, extensive restrictions on freedom of information, the prolonged detention of Julian Assange, and threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland have impacted the UK’s press freedom record.

Suppression of press freedom is alive and well across the world. Modi’s attempts to quash free and independent journalism must be resisted at every turn. Here in the UK we’re all too familiar with the very real threat of contempt for public service journalism. 

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Prime Minister’s Office, cropped to 770 x 403, licenced under CC BY 2.0.

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