Tax officials in India have raided the offices of two major media houses in what the press community believes may be a retaliatory response to recent coverage.
The Income Tax Authority raids on the offices of the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper group and Bharat Samachar or BSTV regional television network took place on Thursday and Friday in six states, including Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The homes of some employees were searched and Dainik Bhaskar reported that agents confiscated cell phones from some staff.
Unnamed government sources cited in The Indian Express said authorities are investigating tax evasion, false expenses and “purchases using shell entities.”
But Dainik Bhaskar and local media associations say they believe the investigations are in retaliation for critical coverage and are an attempt to send a message to journalists.
Both media houses have been critical of the Indian government's response to a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, including a shortage of oxygen supplies and apparent under-reporting of the death toll.
India’s health ministry on Thursday reported 41,383 new cases of the coronavirus in 24 hours and over 500 daily deaths, Reuters reported.
Dainik Bhaskar was also one of the few Hindi-language newspapers to prominently cover details of the Pegasus spyware hack, where surveillance software licensed to governments was found to have targeted around 40 journalists in India. None of Dainik Bhaskar’s journalists were among those named as being affected by the hack.
The Indian government has not publicly commented on the findings by the Pegasus Project.
In a statement, Dainik Bhaskar said it believes raids were a result of its coverage of the government’s alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Broadcaster BSTV reacted to the raid of its offices via Twitter, saying that it would "continue telling the truth."
The Editors Guild of India condemned the raids in a statement, saying it was concerned that government agencies are being “used as a coercive tool to suppress free and independent journalism.” The guild added that the actions were “all the more disturbing” following the revelations of Pegasus spyware targeting journalists in India.
VOA emailed India’s income tax directorate and finance ministry for comment but did not receive a response.
The Central Board of Direct Taxes—the government department responsible for tax investigations—denied any editorial interference and said via social media the team was looking only into financial transactions related to a tax evasion investigation.
Daniel Bastard, of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said raids can have a chilling effect on other news outlets.
“Government agencies harassing media houses over spurious accusations has almost become a pattern now,” Bastard, who heads RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, told VOA.
He said the investigations this week may have been a pretext to intimidate the two media groups, adding, “The reason behind it might be the sharp coverage by Dainik Bhaskar and BSTV's journalists of the government's poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Geeta Seshu, co-editor of Free Speech Collective, an Indian organization that promotes freedom of expression, also questioned whether the raids were an attempt to send a message.
Both media houses are known to be supportive of the larger Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP central government and Uttar Pradesh state, she said.
“There is no doubt that the raids are a very crude attempt to keep some of the biggest and most prominent Hindi language media houses in line in the run up to the [Uttar Pradesh] elections scheduled for early next year,” Seshu told VOA.
Dainik Bhaskar is the largest multi-edition daily in circulation, according to the most recent report published by the Registrar of Newspapers of India. The 63-year-old group works in 12 states, publishing 65 editions in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi.
BSTV is a regional Hindi TV news channel that focuses on Uttar Pradesh from the state capital, Lucknow.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, several media outlets have been investigated for alleged financial irregularities. New regulations have also been put in place to ensure social media platforms comply with government takedown orders.
An investigation was started into the media website Newsclick in February of this year, when members of a government financial investigation agency raided its offices in south Delhi as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering.
At the time, the independent news website had been reporting on large scale farmers protests.
“A majority of mainstream media houses are already operating under a lot of pressure and operate with an unhealthy dependence on the government for advertising revenue.
The media houses that still strive to be independent face court cases and lawsuits and, as the Newsclick experience shows us, prolonged raids and investigation into their finances,” Seshu said.
As well as being intimidating, such actions bring financial pressures and act as a warning to other media outlets.
“It is crippling and debilitating for the operation of a free and fair media and ultimately, for a democracy,” Seshu told VOA.
Umakant Lakhera, the president of Press Club of India, believes such raids are meant to send a message to others reporting on public interest stories.
“Government failures are now in the open on many fronts like economy and security and a section of the media has started highlighting these failures in recent months,” Lakhera told VOA. “The government and party in power try to brand those critics in media and opposition as anti-national. This new mantra is being used to attack political opponents. It is becoming very difficult for the independent media to function … in such [an] atmosphere.”