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Raid of BBC Offices in India

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on the raid of BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai, and allegations of tax evasion following the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question”.

I am grateful to my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for raising this urgent question, and appreciate his interest in the recent news that India’s Income Tax Department has conducted what has been described as a survey on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. That began on 14 February, and finished after three days, on 16 February.

As everyone in this House will be aware, the BBC is quite rightly operationally and editorially independent from His Majesty’s Government. While I cannot comment on the allegations made by India’s Income Tax Department, the BBC has said that it is supporting its staff in its Indian offices and co-operating with the Indian authorities to resolve this matter as soon as possible. Respect for the rule of law is an essential element of an effective democracy, as are an independent media and freedom of speech. They make countries stronger and more resilient. That is why we regularly engage with and support different parts of India’s media. For example, the annual south Asia journalism fellowship programme, under the flagship Chevening brand, includes over 60 Indian alumni.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has previously said, the UK regards India as an important international partner, and His Majesty’s Government are investing heavily in strengthening our ties. Our broad and deep relationship, guided by the comprehensive strategic partnership and the 2030 road map for India-UK future relations, allows us to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with the Government of India. We continue to follow the matter closely.

I thank the Minister for his response, but I want to develop the question. Let us be clear that this was a deliberate act of intimidation following the release of an unflattering documentary about the country’s leader. Since its release, there has been a concerted effort to prevent the documentary from screening in India. Take-down notices issued to Twitter and YouTube have resulted in an India-wide ban of the documentary on those platforms. There has been suppression of the freedom of expression of the media and journalists.

When students from universities across the country have tried to organise screenings of the documentary on university campuses, dozens have been arrested, while others face internet blackouts through power cuts. As the raids on the BBC offices commenced, the Bharatiya Janata party spokesperson issued a statement that said:

“The BBC indulges in anti-India propaganda. India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organisation as long as you do not spew venom”.

As has been said:

“These raids have all the appearance of a reprisal against the BBC…They have come at a time when independent media are being hounded more and more, and when pluralism is shrinking in India”.

Not my words, but the assessment of Reporters Without Borders—strong words indeed. In the past six years, claims of financial irregularities and tax evasion have been used as justification for shutting down more than 14,000 media outlets and non-governmental organisations doing great work in India. They include such household names as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam. That has had a chilling effect on journalists, human rights advocates and religious minorities.

The raids happened seven days ago. Since then—I say this respectfully—there has been silence from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. No Government statements have been issued, and it has taken an urgent question to encourage the Government to condemn this blatant attack on press freedoms. Alarmingly, the raids happened hours after the Government signed a trade deal with India. That has led to allegations that the silence from the Government is due to the proximity of the raids to that deal. In conclusion, can the Minister tell me and the House whether the Government intend to summon the Indian high commissioner, so that his counterparts can raise the issue with him?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I noted a bit of coughing going on, which will give him a clue to a few things.

The hon. Gentleman raised important points. The UK’s support for media freedom is well known. Media freedom and freedom of speech are essential elements of robust democracies. As I said in my opening remarks, I cannot comment on the specifics of the allegations, because the BBC is co-operating with the Indian authorities on the matter, and as the BBC has said, this is an ongoing investigation and it would be inappropriate for it to comment further.

The hon. Gentleman made important points about the implications for NGOs and faith-based organisations. He knows that we continue to work with them on the ground. That is an important issue for him, and certainly for me.

I have often drawn the attention of the House to the very important work done by the BBC Monitoring service. Does not this extremely worrying raid on the BBC, in a country as advanced and potentially well disposed towards this country as India, once again illustrate the importance of not placing too much reliance on sources in countries on which we are reporting, because there is always the potential for action to be taken against local sources? Services such as Monitoring should have strong representation in this country, to guard against disturbing events of the sort that we have seen.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his thoughts on these matters. He has been consistent on these issues. I highlight that we believe that the BBC plays an important role. The FCDO funds services in 12 languages, including four Indian languages: Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu. It will continue to do so, because it is important to ensure that our voice—and an independent voice, through the BBC—is heard throughout the world.

India has a rich heritage and is rightly proud of its place as the world’s largest democracy. However, in a democracy with true media freedoms, criticism cannot be shut down unnecessarily and freedom of expression must be protected at all costs. Last week’s raids on the BBC in India are therefore deeply worrying, regardless of the official narrative on why they took place. The BBC is a globally respected broadcaster, rightly renowned for its high-quality, trustworthy reporting. It should be free to report and operate without intimidation. We Opposition Members are particularly worried about reports that BBC staff were forced to stay in their offices overnight, and have faced lengthy questioning. In any democracy, the media must have the ability to criticise and scrutinise political leaders without fear of repercussions. That clearly applies in this situation. I therefore ask the Minister what discussions he has had with both the BBC World Service and his Indian counterpart regarding the welfare of BBC staff who have been questioned, and what steps he is taking to protect the BBC World Service from intimidation. It would send a deeply worrying message to BBC staff around the world should the Government not make their position on the protection of the BBC’s trustworthy and valuable reporting absolutely clear to the House today.

The hon. Gentleman makes important points. It is because of our broad and deep relationship with India that we are able to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with its Government. As part of those conversations, this issue has been raised and we continue to monitor the situation. He asks important questions about the BBC staff. The BBC said in its statement that it is supporting its staff; obviously welfare is a priority, and consular support is also available if requested. We continue to monitor the situation. He also raises the importance of media freedom. We absolutely support that, which is why we have agreed a package of funding for the BBC World Service. With that, the FCDO also has additional funding to help with key languages.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is important to understand that the BBC is not an arm of the British Government—in fact it is frequently critical of His Majesty’s Government. Clearly that is something that resounds around the world, that people believe the BBC is actually representative of the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that, wherever it operates, the BBC operates within the law and within the appropriate tax rules? Will he confirm that the income tax authorities in India have been investigating the BBC for seven years?

The BBC does have an independent voice and editorial capability, and that is vital. As I said earlier, and as my hon. Friend can read from the BBC, it continues to be involved in the ongoing investigation. The BBC has said it is not appropriate for it to comment further at this point, but it is an ongoing investigation that the BBC is actively engaged in.

The SNP condemns this alarming attack on the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. The BBC World Service is a renowned and respected news outlet. For decades it has shone a light on global affairs, including human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. What we have not heard from the Minister is details of the diplomatic steps the FCDO has taken and will continue to take to convey its opposition to these raids in the strongest terms and to safeguard those BBC journalists affected. Human rights abuses, discrimination and governmental scapegoating against India’s religious minorities are well documented. Political transparency and freedom of press are essential, but the BJP seems content to violate those principles. Does the Minister agree that additional funding is now necessary to ensure that the BBC World Service’s independent and unbiased radio broadcasts in Hindi are not cut? Given these appalling raids, will the FCDO reconsider its approach to negotiations on the release of Jagtar Singh Johal, for whom the softly-softly approach does not seem to be working?

The hon. Gentleman makes important points about freedom of religion or belief. That is key, and I know it is at the heart of much of what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said in his opening remarks. The SNP spokesperson also talks about funding. As I said in answer to a previous question, the Government have put a package of funding together for the World Service, and the FCDO has provided funding particularly for those four languages I highlighted earlier, because we believe it is vital for the BBC to have that independent voice and to have the reassurance that it can carry on its work.

We in the UK are very proud of our press freedoms and, indeed, are accustomed to having the BBC and other reputable outlets hold the UK Government, the Prime Minister and Opposition parties to account in a devastating manner. That is why many of us were so concerned that India, a nation with which we have shared values of democracy and press freedoms, decided to conduct a raid on the BBC offices after the airing of a documentary critical of the Indian Prime Minister’s actions. Exactly what conversations has the Minister had with his Indian counterpart to ensure that journalists can undertake their work without fear or favour?

As I highlighted earlier, we have wide-ranging conversations with the Indian Government because of our broad and deep relationship. These issues have absolutely been raised as part of those conversations.

I am a great fan of the BBC. It strides on the world stage and is revered by its listeners across the world. I would say the BBC is known for its honesty, which is integral to democracy. Some of the great democracies in this world will surely see this news with some trepidation. Will His Majesty’s Government give consideration, if necessary, to contacting the United States and other democracies to put pressure on India and say that this is unacceptable behaviour?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and the passion with which he made his comments. I am not able to comment on the specifics of the allegations in the ongoing investigation. The BBC is continuing to co-operate with the Indian authorities.

The recent actions against the BBC by the Modi Government represent yet another example of disregard for human rights. Back in 2020, the BJP Government froze the accounts of Amnesty International and its offices were forced to close. There are many other examples of the prosecution of minority groups. When will this Government publicly acknowledge the curbing of freedom of expression that is resulting in diminishing democracy in India?

As I have highlighted, freedom of religion or belief is vital for this Government. It is a key principle, as is freedom of media. The hon. Gentleman will know that we had a fantastic conference here in the UK last summer to promote freedom of religion or belief. We condemn any instances of discrimination because of religion and will continue to do so across the world. We have those conversations with the Indian Government, and we are able to do so because of the depth and breadth of the relationship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this urgent question. With these raids we see an example of the increasing politicisation of the Indian justice system, along with a hostile attitude towards an independent media. Does the Minister agree that that politicisation and mediatisation of the Indian republic’s judicial system is a matter of real concern for British citizens who might find themselves subject to it—for example, my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal?

We need to ensure that our views on media freedom are communicated clearly with other Governments. We have those conversations not only with the Government of India, but across the world. We think these are very important principles and, as I said, they are essential elements for robust democracies.

I understand why the Foreign Office does not want to comment on this particular investigation, but the Minister will well know that this is not the first time that the authorities in India have undertaken such investigations into media organisations that are critical of the current Government. However, I do not think that stops the Government expressing a view, as the Minister just did, about the importance of media freedom in relation to the attempts to ban the viewing of the documentary. When we read that a spokesperson for the BJP actually described the BBC as the “most corrupt” organisation in the world, is it not incumbent upon the Government to stand up for the BBC and its integrity?

We stand up for the BBC. We fund the BBC. We think the BBC World Service is vital. We want the BBC to have that editorial freedom. It criticises us, it criticises the Labour party, and it has that freedom that we believe is so important. That freedom is key, and we want to be able to communicate its importance to our friends across the world, including the Government in India.