New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India and the Press Club of India, along with the former deputy chief of bureau at BBC Delhi, Satish Jacob, have expressed deep concern about the “surveys” at the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation in New Delhi and Mumbai by Income Tax department officials on Tuesday, February 14.
“The surveys by the IT department is in continuation of a trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment,” the Guild noted in a statement.
In it, it also observed that the surveys come soon after the release of two documentaries by the BBC, on the 2002 violence in Gujarat and the current status of the minorities in India. “The documentaries stirred political waters with the government criticising the BBC for wrong and prejudiced reportage on the Gujarat violence, and attempted to ban online access and viewing of the films in India,” the Guild said.
The Press Club of India “strongly condemned” the survey, describing them as part of a series of attacks on the media by government agencies in recent times, “especially against those sections of the media that the government perceives is hostile to it and critical of the ruling establishment”.
“It is deeply unfortunate as this latest instance appears to be a clear cut case of vendetta, coming within weeks of a documentary aired by the BBC on the Gujarat riots. This documentary, which appears to be the immediate provocation for the raids, has already been banned on YouTube and other social media platforms,” the statement continued.
Such an action on an international broadcasting network could damage the reputation and image of India as the largest democracy in the world, the Press Club of India said, appealing to the government to “restrain its agencies from misusing their powers in order to intimidate the media and put curbs on the freedom of the press”.
‘Smacks of retribution’: DIGIPUB
DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a platform that represents digital news media organisations, said that it is deeply concerned about the ‘surveys’ and at reports that BBC staffers were made to ‘deposit’ their phones and laptops with the IT department. “Given this comes weeks after the two-part BBC documentary India: The Modi Question was blocked by the Government of India, the ‘surveys’ smack of retribution to silence free and fair speech and expression. They not only tar India’s global image as a mature democracy but could also impair relations between friendly nations,” it said.
This incident emulates a highly worrying trend of deploying Government agencies to ‘investigate’, intimidating the media into silence, the foundation – of which The Wire is a member – said. “Since 2021, the offices of Newsclick, Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar and The Wire have been raided. Such raids have invariably been directed at those media organisations that speak truth to power, suggesting that the ruling dispensation seeks to constrict the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech, freedom of the press and the inalienable right of citizens to know the unvarnished truth,” the statement said.
DIGIPUB said it “earnestly hopes” that the government recognises that it can truly serve the national interest through greater transparency and accountability rather than restrictions and fear.
Intimidation: Satish Jacob
A former deputy chief of bureau at BBC Delhi, journalist Satish Jacob, has similarly said that the “so-called survey” is “nothing but an act of intimidation through the misuse of government agencies.”
Jacob told The Wire that he finds it worrying that the Union government under Narendra Modi is brazen with its “petty politics.”
“What I find most worrying is that the Modi government no longer cares about the optics of such an action. I don’t think anyone believes the official line of this being a mere survey. It is nothing but petty politics and an attempt to muzzle an international news channel, when all the Indian channels have been browbeaten into submission,” Jacob said.
The Editors Guild highlighted other similar moves of the I-T department, conducted against news outlets in the recent past.
“The surveys by the IT department is in continuation of a trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies or the ruling establishment. In September 2021, offices of NewsClick and Newslaundry were similarly “surveyed” by IT department. In June 2021, there were surveys against Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar. In February 2021, the ED had conducted raids at the office of NewsClick,” it noted.
In each case, the Guild said, the raids and surveys were against the backdrop of critical coverage of the government establishment by the news organisations. It said this trend undermines constitutional democracy.
Jacob also highlighted an irony.
“What I find particularly ironic is that many of the BJP politicians talk about the excesses of the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi while behaving exactly like the government of those dark days,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Guild has asked for “great care and sensitivity” to be shown in all such investigations so as to not undermine the rights of journalists and so that the investigations don’t degenerate into instruments of harassment to intimidate independent media.”
‘Dangerous and ominous’
The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) have also released a statement in agreement with the Editors Guild of India in expressing concern at the ‘searches’ and ’surveys’.
NAJ and DUJ noted that this is a “new era of undeclared press censorship and curbs on independent journalism is spreading to curb all forms of independent thinking aimed to numb all forms of dissent.”
This is dangerous and ominous for democracy and smacks of even darker portents,” the two associations said.
The statement also mentions the proposal to amend IT rules 2021, to tighten the screws on internet censorship, and the “increasing police powers of the Press Information Bureau (PIB) and interlinked attempts to coax, cajole or browbeat all forms of media into subjugation to suit government machinations and policies.”