Tax raids have been carried out on the offices of one of India’s most popular newspapers, after months of critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Thursday morning, more than 100 tax inspectors descended on the headquarters of Dainik Bhaskar media group in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and raided 30 regional offices in the states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The homes of several of the newspaper’s senior executives and promoters were also raided and the mobile phones of some employees seized.
Dainik Bhaskar, which is published in Hindi, is one of India’s most widely read daily newspapers with a circulation of more than 4m copies. It produces more than 60 regional editions.
As the devastating second wave of Covid hit India in March, Dainik Bhaskar devoted extensive coverage to the failures of the state and central government in dealing with the crisis, including deaths from oxygen shortages, lack of hospital beds and the bodies of thousands of victims found floating on the Ganges.
Reporters also spent weeks at crematoriums and hospital morgues counting the Covid dead to expose the undercounting of deaths.
Dainik Bhaskar accused the government of going after it on trumped-up tax evasion charges in response to its critical reporting. “Scared of its coverage of floating dead bodies in the River Ganges during the pandemic, the government launched raids on the Bhaskar group,” it said in a statement.
The Press Club of India said it “deplores such acts of intimidation by the government through enforcement agencies to deter the independent media”.
Opposition politicians condemned the raids as an attempt to intimidate and muzzle the critical press in India. Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan, said the raids were a “brazen attempt to suppress the voice of the media”.
Jairam Ramesh, a former minister with the opposition Congress party, tweeted: “Through its reporting Dainik Bhaskar has exposed the Modi regime’s monumental mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now paying the price.”
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and a vocal critic of the government, said: “Dainik Bhaskar bravely reported the way Narendra Modi mishandled the entire Covid crisis and led the country to its most horrifying days amidst the pandemic.”
Banerjee described the raids as a “vindictive act that aims to suppress voices that bring out the truth. It’s a grave violation that undermines the very principles of democracy.”
The information and broadcasting minister, Anurag Thakur, denied the government had any role in authorising the Dainik Bhaskar raids. “Agencies do their own work, we don’t interfere in their functioning,” he said.
It is not the first time organisations and media groups critical of the prime minister’s rightwing Hindu nationalist administration have found themselves subjected to tax evasion charges. In 2017, the television news channel NDTV was raided over allegations of financial impropriety. Amnesty International has been the target of a years-long investigation over alleged illegal foreign funding, and had to halt its work in India last year when the government froze its bank accounts.
In July, the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders named Modi among the heads of state and government it deemed “predators of press freedom”. Under Modi, India has fallen dramatically in the global press freedom index due to the persecution of journalists and news organisations who are critical of the regime.