Indian government’s crackdown on press freedom after BBC documentary critical of PM Modi

Indian tax officials have conducted searches at the BBC offices in that country for the past two days. It comes weeks after India censored a BBC documentary that criticizes Prime Minister Modi. The actions against the British broadcaster put the spotlight on the dwindling democratic freedoms in one of the world’s largest democracies. Bobby Ghosh joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the developments.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Indian tax officials have conducted searches at the BBC offices in that country for the past two days, highlighting dwindling press freedoms in what's often called the world's largest democracy.

    The BBC's offices in Mumbai and New Delhi were swarmed by reporters and Indian tax officials, tax raids just three weeks after the British broadcaster aired this documentary called "India: The Modi Question."

  • Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister:

    The one area where I was very, very weak, and that was how to handle the media.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Examining Prime Minister Narendra Modi's role in anti-Muslim raids in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. More than 1,000 people were killed.

    The documentary cites a British Foreign Office report that called Modi — quote — "directly responsible for the climate of impunity enabling the violence." Modi's government invoked emergency powers to block film clips online and arrested students who held screenings. But students resisted and protested.

    As the tax raid unfolded yesterday, Modi's Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, denounced the BBC at a press conference.

  • Gaurav Bhatia, Spokesman, Bharatiya Janata Party:

    How shallow the reporting of the BBC is. India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organization as long as you do not have a hidden agenda.

  • Abhinandan Sekhri, Newslaundry:

    It's just an intimidatory tactic. It's made pretty clear. I mean, there are no pretenses, even in the case of the BBC.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Abhinandan Sekhri is the co-founder of Newslaundry, an independent Indian media outlet that published reports critical of the Modi government in 2021 and faced a similar tax search. A New Delhi court later dismissed all allegations of tax violations.

  • Abhinandan Sekhri:

    I was detained for 13-and-a-half-hours. This time, they took my phone data. They took my laptop data. And our coverage continued.

    Similarly, in the case of the BBC, they did this documentary which created a furor among those in power. And they were very upset about it. And this is the way of demonstrating that: We will show you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This latest confrontation raises more questions about the Modi government's commitment to freedom of the press.

    Bobby Ghosh is an Indian American journalist and editor of foreign affairs and opinions at Bloomberg. He joins me now from New York.

    Bobby Ghosh, it's good to see you.

    When you look at the contents of this BBC documentary, why do you think it would lead to this kind of response from the Modi government?

  • Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg Opinion:

    Well, the Modi government historically has been very, very thin-skinned about any kind of criticism, even the mildest kind of criticism.

    This is particularly difficult for the Modi administration, because it comes after years and years and years of local journalism, journalism by Indian publications that have looked into those same riots. And the government thought that it had put the matter to bed, it had intimidated and silenced all its critics, anybody who could bring it up.

    And this coming from the BBC, an international media outlet with a great deal of credibility, it's much harder for the government to question the BBC. And, therefore, it really goes under their skin.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is this the first time that we have seen Prime Minister Modi use his government agencies in this way, in these tax raids?

  • Bobby Ghosh:

    Well, tax raids are fairly familiar tool of intimidation in Indian politics.

    So, it's not just the Modi government. This goes back to Indira Gandhi during the emergency in the 1970s. And it's practiced across India by state governments and national governments, all kinds of raids, customs raids, tax raids. These are a tool of harassment.

    It is only one of several weapons of intimidation and coercion that the Modi government has brought to bear, primarily on the domestic media.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bobby, there's an organization called Freedom House, which grades nations according to their adherence to democratic principles. They rate India as only partly free.

    Is this just about cracking down on journalists?

  • Bobby Ghosh:

    No, I think it's a — there's a — there's been an across-the-board shrinkage of free space in India.

    It's not just journalists. It's NGOs. It's for any kind of organization that the government perceives as a threat. And like populist governments elsewhere in the world, the Modi government is very quick to see threat where mere criticism is being committed.

    Opposition parties, minority groups of all kinds have come under enormous strain. So, this is not simply a matter of cracking down on journalism, although that is a very useful barometer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amid all this, we should note we have not seen public criticism from the U.S. or from the U.K.

    Just yesterday, the White House put out a statement saying President Biden and Prime Minister Modi had a phone call. They just signed a $46 billion aircraft deal. This administration hasn't been public critical of the Modi government. Why not?

  • Bobby Ghosh:

    The administration sees India as a source of revenue. It sees India as an ally with a common adversary in the shape of China. It sees India as a fellow democracy.

    And, therefore, it's really very reluctant to criticize. And it is this reluctance to criticize by the West, by other democracies, by Europe that has emboldened the Modi administration. The fact that it is now targeting an international publication like the BBC, that comes from this sense of impunity.

    The Modi administration knows it can count on the greatest power on Earth, the biggest and most powerful democracy in the world, to keep silent when India breaks the rules of democracy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bobby, as you know, with a population of 1.4 billion, India is known as the world's largest democracy. Given everything we have just talked about, is it still fair to call it that?

  • Bobby Ghosh:

    Well, if you think about democracy simply in terms of elections, then, far and away, India is the biggest democracy in the world. It conducts a gigantic election that is very hard to wrap your head around, the sheer scale of it.

    But democracy is much more than just about elections. It's about freedom to express yourself, freedom to criticize the government, freedom to investigate, and put the government under a microscope. All those freedoms are shrinking in India, and have been shrinking at an alarming pace.

    It's still a democracy, but it's an illiberal democracy, rather than a liberal democracy. And the arc, the direction in which it is going, does not allow for optimism about any kind of turnaround in the near future. This is not the democracy of Nehru. This is a very, very different kind of beast.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bobby Ghosh, editor of foreign affairs and opinions at Bloomberg, thank you for joining us.

  • Bobby Ghosh:

    My pleasure.

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