Indian tax probe of BBC a follow-up, not vindictive – govt official

By YP Rajesh and Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India embarked on an income tax survey of BBC offices after the British news organisation failed to offer a convincing response to earlier tax notices, a government official said on Wednesday, weeks after India blocked a BBC documentary as propaganda.

Tax officials searched BBC premises in New Delhi and Mumbai for a second day on Wednesday, remaining in the buildings late into the evening. The action drew criticism from prominent media bodies inside India.

The documentary focused on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat during riots in 2002 in which at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Activists put the toll at more than twice that number.

The government last month dismissed the documentary, “India: The Modi Question”, as propaganda and blocked its streaming and sharing on social media.

The foreign ministry said last month the documentary was meant to push a “discredited narrative”, was biased, lacked objectivity and showed a “continuing colonial mindset”.

The BBC has stood by its reporting for the documentary and said it was cooperating with Indian tax officials.

Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, said the BBC was served tax notices in the past but the organisation had not provided a “convincing response” to tax authorities.

The tax survey relates to transfer pricing rules and alleged diversion of profits. It was neither “vindictive” nor “done out of a sense of pique”, he told Times Now news channel.

In an internal memo circulated before Gupta’s comments, BBC World Service director Liliane Landor said the Income Tax Department was conducting a survey of the organisation’s “tax status and affairs in India”, with which the BBC was cooperating fully.

“If you are asked to meet with the officers you should answer their questions honestly and directly.

“Questions about the BBC’s structure, activities, organisation, and operations in India are within the remit of the investigation and should be answered,” Landor said in the note, seen by Reuters.

“It goes without saying that you should not delete or conceal any information on any of your devices.”

A spokesperson for the BBC did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

India’s Income Tax Department has so far declined to comment on the reason for the search.

Media organisations inside India criticised the search.

“We demand that this intimidation be stopped and journalists are left to do their jobs without fear or favour,” the Mumbai Press Club said in a statement.

An editorial in the Indian Express newspaper said the government’s action “smacks of bullying”.

India ranks low on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, falling eight places last year to No. 150. The government has said it does not agree with conclusions drawn by the index.

(Reporting by YP Rajesh, Aditya Kalra, Sudipto Ganguly, Rupam Jain and Aftab Ahmed; editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)