New Delhi:Questioned in the House of Commons about the Income Tax department ‘surveys’ at BBC India offices after the release of a documentary on Narendra Modi, the UK government has defended its national broadcaster. According toThe Hindu, Tory MP David Rutley, who is the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), answered questions on the issue from members of the opposition as well as his own party for about 20 minutes.
“We stand up for the BBC, we fund the BBC, we think the BBC World Service is vitally important,” Rutley said. He added that it was important for the national broadcaster to have editorial freedom, and in the UK the BBC was known for being critical of both prominent parties.
“It has that freedom which we believe is vitally important and that freedom is key. We want to be able to communicate the importance of that with our colleagues…our friends across the world, including the government in India,” he said.
Several MPs questioned the UK government on the incident in India. “Let’s be very clear: this was a deliberate act of intimidation following the release of an unflattering documentary about the country’s leader,” said Jim Shannon, of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Conservative MP Julian Lewis characterised the action as “extremely worrying”. “The SNP [Scottish National Party] absolutely condemns this alarming attack on the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, “ MP Drew Hendry said.
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Labour MP Fabian Hamilton said the surveys were “deeply worrying” regardless of the “official narrative” of why they occurred, and asked what steps were being taken to protect the BBC from intimidation. “On this side of the House, we’re particularly worried about reports that suggest the BBC India staff had been forced to stay in their offices overnight and have faced lengthy questioning,” he said. “In any democracy the media must have the ability to criticise and scrutinise political leaders without fear of repercussions, and that clearly applies in this situation.”
Rutley, without going into specifics, said that this matter had been raised with the Indian government in the context of the larger set of issues that the UK and India discuss.
Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone asked during the discussion if the UK would consider joining forces with the US and other democracies to “put pressure” on India and call out “this completely unacceptable behaviour”. Rutley did not answer, and only said that he could not comment on the specific allegations.
BBC had recently released a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Union government had blocked the documentary on Twitter and YouTube and said it had “propagandist agenda.” The timing of the Income Tax department surveys, soon after, have thus been criticised as a purported attempt to diminish press freedom.
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