How Modi went to war with the BBC

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The BBC's troubles in India can be traced back to its documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi - Arun Chandrabose/AFP
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When BBC reporters in Delhi discovered the broadcaster was about to release a documentary criticising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they immediately braced for a backlash.

“Why should the BBC do this?”, one employee reportedly asked. “We’ll face consequences.”

The fears proved well-founded. Modi’s government moved quickly to block the documentary, which focused on the treatment of Muslims under his reign and warned of a slide into authoritarianism.

Just weeks later, tax authorities raided the BBC’s Delhi offices, citing concerns about its accounting practices and compliance with foreign media ownership laws.

BBC office building in New Delhi
The BBC's office building in New Delhi was raided after the broadcaster aired its critical documentary - Sajjad Hussain/AFP

A year on, the British broadcaster has taken the unprecedented step of restructuring its Indian operations, splitting off a separate production company from its news functions in an effort to conform with increasingly stringent regulations.

For many observers, the overhaul has worrying implications for the BBC’s largest overseas news bureau.

There are implications outside of the BBC outpost too. The crackdown is far from an isolated incident and is just the latest erosion of press freedom in an increasingly authoritarian state, say observers.

India’s six-week-long elections begin on Friday, with Modi hoping to win a third term in power. If that comes to pass, many fear Modi’s war on the BBC may be just the beginning of a broader crackdown on the media.

“Indian journalism is currently shrouded in a growing darkness, with increasingly bizarre accusations being thrown around, even labelling journalists as terrorists,” says Karan Thapar, a veteran Indian journalist.

“Major news channels are stifling criticism from opposition parties when it comes to Modi and his government. This situation is nothing short of surreal, and if the Modi regime secures re-election, the prospects for journalism in India appear even bleaker.”

The BBC’s troubles in India can be traced back to the documentary, which aired on BBC Two in January last year.

The two-part series, titled India: The Modi Question, delved into allegations that Modi’s pursuit of Hindu nationalist policies led to the increased marginalisation of and widespread violence against Muslims in the country.

The film focuses on claims that Modi was complicit in sectarian violence that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat.

A UK Government report, exposed in the documentary, found the violence had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”. Modi was denied a US visa in 2005 for “severe violations of religious freedom”, though he has since travelled to the country.

Modi was cleared of complicity in the violence in 2012 but the allegations have haunted him ever since.

The BBC documentary, which relies heavily on archive footage, offered little by way of new material for those who follow Indian politics closely.

But in depicting Modi’s controversial rise and concluding that India was sliding into authoritarianism, the reporting angered the long-serving prime minister.

Modi’s government invoked emergency laws to prevent the documentary from being broadcast in India and ordered Twitter and YouTube to take down links and posts about the film, which it branded a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mindset”.

The BBC's documentary depicted Narendra Modi's controversial rise to power - Saurabh Das/AP

This did not stop many Indians from using virtual private networks to circumvent the ban. There were reports of students huddling around smartphones to watch the programme.

On the morning of February 11, less than a month after the film aired, tax officials raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi.

The raids, which the government euphemistically branded a “survey”, saw officials search computers and clone the mobile phones of some senior staff.

The review focused on tax issues and whether the BBC was in compliance with a law capping foreign ownership of media companies at 26pc.

One Indian journalist who has since left the BBC brands the move “intimidation”.

“They were not happy with BBC stories generally… They thought the BBC was serving Western media’s agenda in India,” the source claims.

“When the documentary came out, they decided to teach the BBC a little bit of a lesson – that you are crossing the red line so we can actually do more to harm you.”

Sources said the investigation revolves around agreements that the BBC’s commercial arm in Mumbai struck with tech giants such as Facebook and YouTube to channel revenues generated in India back to London.

A BBC spokesman declined to comment but said the broadcaster was cooperating with authorities and took its tax obligations very seriously.

Nevertheless, the timing of the raids meant that many observers saw them as evidence of the very authoritarianism that the BBC’s documentary was trying to expose.

Opinion polling suggests 73-year-old Mr Modi (second right) is in line to win the upcoming election - Manish Swarup/AP

Célia Mercier, South Asia head at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), says the raids had “all the appearances of a reprisal”, adding: “The timing is obviously raising questions.”

Observers warn that Modi is increasingly deploying tax authorities as a means of suppressing dissent, not only from journalists but also charities and other non-governmental organisations.

Independent news site NewsClick was raided in October over claims it had received illegal funding from China. Two senior employees were briefly imprisoned in what Mercier describes as “one of the most blatant attacks on press freedom”.

“It seems there is a will to stifle dissent, muzzle independent media, and suppress critical voices,” she adds.

Oxfam has also been targeted by the so-called “surveys”, while Amnesty was forced to shut down operations in India in 2020 after the government froze its bank accounts.

The Indian government has rejected accusations it is weaponising these agencies to stifle dissent.

The BBC’s troubles are not limited to tax concerns. The broadcaster was this week forced to spin off an independent production company amid claims it was in breach of India’s media ownership laws.

Collective Newsroom, which is led by four former BBC India journalists, will provide news and other programming back to the BBC through a service contract – the first time such an arrangement has been made by Britain’s publicly-funded broadcaster.

The BBC has applied to take a stake of just under 26pc in the business, in line with the country’s foreign investment laws.

The 90 remaining BBC staff members will continue to work directly for the broadcaster in news gathering operations for television, radio and online in English.

Publicly, the BBC is upbeat. Liliane Landor, outgoing senior controller of BBC News International Services, said the arrangement “ensures the continued production of independent, international and impartial journalism that the BBC News brand is renowned for in India and around the world”.

But journalists on the ground have doubts about the new company and its independence.

One reporter, who was among around 30 staff to leave the BBC or be made redundant rather than join Collective Newsroom, said they feared a culture of “self-censorship” at the organisation.

“We opted out rather than accept Collective Newsroom because we had joined the BBC and now it is not the BBC,” the journalist says. “We don’t want to trust this organisation which has just come into being.”

Another BBC journalist who has joined the new venture was less critical: “We are not seeing any major difference editorially. The way we have been working, we continue to do that.”

However, the source raised concerns about the future and potential career progression as “we are not part of the BBC anymore”.

BBC's offices in New Delhi
Officials from India's Income Tax department conducted searches at the BBC's offices in New Delhi in February 2023 - Altaf Qadri/AP

A BBC insider said Collective Newsroom would still have to adhere to the corporation’s editorial standards, adding that the resolution of regulatory matters meant it could “focus on journalism without being distracted by compliance issues”.

A spokesman for Collective Newsroom said the new organisation would not be censored, adding: “Collective Newsroom is the home to India’s most credible, creative and courageous journalism. As we lead with the facts and hear from diverse voices across the country, the strength of our journalism and robust editorial offer will make us stand out in the market.”

The restructuring comes amid broader concerns about the health of Indian media under Modi.

India last year tumbled down the RSF World Press Freedom Index to 161st out of 180 countries – its worst position ever and down from 133rd in 2016.

RSF has warned that India is using terrorism laws to silence journalists in Jammu and Kashmir, while there are reports that foreign correspondents are increasingly being refused permits and visas. Since 2019, at least 40 journalists have been detained.

Reporters in the country say a crackdown on the press has been ongoing for several years but has recently become more brazen. Newspapers are said to be reluctant to criticise Modi’s regime for fear of having their advertising funding withdrawn.

The Collective Newsroom employee said: “Most of the mainstream media channels and newspapers have become mouthpieces of the ruling government.

“Those who don’t toe the line of the ruling government have been thrown out from mainstream media and they have started their digital platforms to do real journalism, but not everyone can afford to do that.”

Thapar adds: “Indian journalism has significantly changed under Modi. Journalists are far more worried about the consequences of what they write so often they self-censor themselves.

“The editors are very conscious of the implications of criticism of the government and quite often they either avoid or prod it down.

“Newspaper proprietors are concerned about the impact on their other businesses so therefore they lean on their editors to make sure the government is not offended.”

This decline in press freedom is particularly alarming in the run-up to India’s elections. Opinion polling suggests 73-year-old Modi is in line to win, equalling the three-term record of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Any victory for Modi risks being tainted by the backdrop of declining press freedom and concerns about creeping authoritarianism.

“In terms of press freedom, it seems now to be more of a façade, hiding an authoritarian drift,” says Mercier.

The Indian embassy was contacted for comment.

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