The income tax “survey” at BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices entered the third day on Thursday. A team of two dozen tax officials are probing alleged transfer pricing violations and diversion of profits.
This came weeks after the government banned a two-part BBC documentary tracing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise following the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The focus of the “survey”, meanwhile, remains the account books of BBC India at its Delhi office. Around 15-20 members of the team have been going through digital data on the sixth floor of the 17-storey Hindustan Times House at KG Marg. The rest have been stationed on the fifth floor where the editorial staff works.
PTI quoted officials to say that the exercise would continue and the “exact time frame to call the operation closed rests entirely on the teams on the ground”.
BBC India has asked its staff not to delete any file from their digital devices until the “survey” is complete, a source said. “If we delete anything from our devices, it might give the authorities a handle to unnecessarily harass us. To prevent this, the message was conveyed by BBC to its staff,” a source at the Delhi office said.
Journalists’ phones or their data copies have not been taken away, the source confirmed. “Only the accounts section’s digital data has been copied.”
On the second day, each desktop on both floors were checked. Tax sleuths searched for files by keying in words such as “black money”, “GST”, “taxation”, “profit”, “loss”. “I don’t know what they hope to find by using these keywords,” said the source.
The BBC leadership remained in office until officials wrapped up work on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The tax team stayed overnight on the first two days and slept on mattresses brought from outside. I-T officials also took a little break, stepping out of the office for a cup of tea and snacks on Wednesday afternoon, the source said. They have been ordering food online for lunch and dinner.
Around 24 hours into the survey, BBC employees spotted a few officials relaxing and taking afternoon siesta on the sofa on Wednesday. “The reason could be that they have not found anything incriminating against us,” chuckled the source.
Meanwhile, in two emails sent to its employees on Wednesday morning and night, BBC reiterated that it stands by them and lauded their “resilience and professionalism”. The mail also said that only those who are critical to broadcasting operations can come to the office while the rest can work from home.
An internal message sent by BBC World Service also flagged “rumours” and “inaccuracies” in the media coverage of the survey. “We are aware that there are a lot of rumours circulating in the media about what is going on and our teams are working to correct any inaccuracies,” read a mail sent on Wednesday night.
The reference was not clear. But conspiracy theories have flown thick and fast, including a claim by certain channels that BBC was an agent of the Chinese Communist Party.
On the first day of the survey, a video was widely circulated on social media showing an official confronting BBC staff for not letting them enter the office. “We thought they were protesters against the BBC documentary. So nobody opened the doors. Amid this, one of our employees entered using his card, unwittingly giving access to the I-T team,” said the source.
Two dozen officials, accompanied by around 10 police officers, had reached the sixth floor using six elevators and a staircase.
The BBC in a press statement subsequently said that it was cooperating with tax authorities and hoped that the situation would resolve as soon as possible.
From 2017-18 to 2021-22, the income tax department has launched prosecution in 1,956 “search and seizure” cases across the country. Only 29 of them – or 1.48 percent – have resulted in conviction, shows the Union Finance Ministry’s reply in the Rajya Sabha. If the last four years are considered, the conviction rate further drops to an unflattering 0.42 percent. Pendency has increased from 674 in 2017-18 to 1,908 in 2021-22.
According to the ministry's reply, 3,787 “groups” have been “searched” by the income tax department” and assets worth Rs 1,159 crore seized. At 984, the highest number of groups were searched in 2019-20, followed by 966 in the previous year. In 2021-22, as many as 686 groups were searched.
Update at 4.55 pm, Feb 16: This report has been updated with details of tax investigations.