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BBC tax raids put India press freedom in spotlight

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Just weeks after the BBC aired a documentary examining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in deadly 2002 sectarian riots, tax inspectors descended on the broadcaster’s offices. 

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party says the two are not connected, but rights groups say the BBC raids this week show the parlous state of press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy.

News outlets that publish unfavourable reporting find themselves targeted with legal action, while journalists critical of the government are harassed and even imprisoned.

The three-day lockdown of the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai is the latest of several similar “search and survey” operations against media houses.

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“Unfortunately, this is becoming a trend, there is no shying away from that,” Kunal Majumdar of the Committee to Protect Journalists told AFP.

At least four Indian outlets that had critically reported on the government were raided by tax officers or financial crimes investigators in the past two years, he said.

As with the BBC, those outlets said officials confiscated phones and accessed computers used by journalists.

“When you have authorities trying to go through your material, go through your work, that’s intimidation,” Majumdar added.

“The international community ought to wake up and start taking this matter seriously.”

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India has fallen 10 spots to 150th on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, since Modi took office in 2014.

Journalists have long faced harassment, legal threats and intimidation for their work in India but more criminal cases are being lodged against reporters than ever, according to the Free Speech Collective.

Criminal complaints were issued against a record 67 journalists in 2020, the latest year for which figures are available, the local civil society group reported.

Ten journalists were behind bars in India at the start of the year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Once arrested, reporters can spend months or even years waiting for the cases against them to proceed through the courts.

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‘Why be afraid?’

The BBC documentary explored Modi’s time as chief minister of Gujarat state during religious riots that killed at least 1,000 people, most of them minority Muslims.

The programme cited a British foreign ministry report claiming that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene” in anti-Muslim violence by right-wing Hindu groups.

The two-part series featured a BBC interview with Modi shortly after the riots, in which he was asked whether he could have handled the matter differently.

Modi responded that his main weakness was not knowing “how to handle the media”.

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“That’s been something he has been taking care of since,” Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of India’s Caravan magazine, told AFP.

“That sums up his attitude.”

The BBC documentary did not air in India but provoked a furious response from the government, which dismissed its contents as “hostile propaganda”.

Authorities used information technology laws to ban the sharing of links to the programme in an effort to stop its spread on social media.

Gaurav Bhatia, a BJP spokesman, said this week’s raids on the BBC offices were lawful and the timing had nothing to do with the documentary’s broadcast.

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“If you have been following the law of the country, if you have nothing to hide, why be afraid of an action that is according to the law,” he told reporters.

‘Misogynistic and sectarian attacks’

Unfavourable reporting in India can prompt not only legal threats from the government, but a frightening backlash from members of the public.

“Indian journalists who are too critical of the government are subjected to all-out harassment and attack campaigns by Modi devotees,” Reporters Without Borders said last year.

Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub has been a persistent target of Modi supporters since conducting an undercover investigation that alleged government officials were implicated in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

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She has been subjected to an online disinformation barrage, including doctored tweets suggesting she had defended child rapists and a report falsely announcing her arrest for money laundering.

UN-appointed experts singled out her case last year and said she had endured “relentless misogynistic and sectarian attacks”.

They also said Ayyub had been targeted by Indian authorities with various forms of harassment, including the freezing of her bank accounts over tax fraud and money laundering allegations.

“I am witnessing a depravity daily that I had not witnessed before,” Ayyub told AFP.

Burnt copies of a book she authored had been sent to her home in Mumbai and someone threatened to gang-rape her in front of her family, she said.

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“They are emboldened,” she added, “knowing that nobody will take action against them.”

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South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

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South Korea trainee doctors stage walkout against medical school quotas

More than 1,600 trainee doctors in South Korea’s major hospitals staged a walkout on Tuesday to protest against a government plan to admit more students to medical schools, stoking fears of delays to surgical operations and patient treatment.

The government wants to boost medical school admissions by 2,000 from the 2025 academic year, against a current annual figure of about 3,000, and eventually add 10,000 more by 2035.

In protest, about 6,400 of the 13,000 doctors and interns at large hospitals handed in resignations and some 1,630 of them had left by 11 pm on Monday, the health ministry said.

Adding medical school places is key to improving access to basic healthcare in remote areas and developing cutting-edge technologies, President Yoon Suk Yeol told a cabinet meeting.

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“It is a task of the times that can no longer be delayed,” he added.

The industrial action came despite a government order for the doctors to stay at work, and major hospitals said they were altering surgery schedules and patient appointments.

Park Ki-joo, 65, said the walkout forced him to stay overnight in Seoul with his 9-year-old daughter, who was due for neck surgery at a major hospital.

“I don’t live here but now have to get a place to stay,” Park, a resident of the northern town of Cherwon, told Reuters.

“But I’m more worried it could take even longer for her to get treated.”

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Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who had pleaded with doctors not to take people’s lives and health hostage, ordered emergency measures such as the use of telemedicine, more operations at public hospitals and the opening up of military clinics.

About 76% of South Koreans back the plan for more medical students, a Gallup Korea poll showed last week, amid concerns about an acute shortage of doctors for paediatrics, emergency units and clinics outside the greater Seoul area.

South Korea’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But doctors and medical student groups say there are already sufficient physicians and an increase in numbers could lead to unnecessary medical procedures and undermine the finances of the national health insurance plan.

They have also criticised the government for failing to consult and for “demonising” existing doctors.

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Park Dan, head of the Korea Interns and Residents Association, said on Facebook he submitted his resignation on Monday because of what he called the government’s “messy policy”.

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Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

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Chinese tourists flock to Southeast Asia as overseas travel bounces back

Chinese travellers flocked to tourist hot-spots across Asia over the Lunar New Year break, with visitor numbers and spending in destinations including Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia exceeding pre-COVID levels.

Visa-free access for Chinese tourists to the Southeast Asia countries boosted traffic and signalled a robust revival in travel since Beijing lifted strict COVID restrictions in early 2023 that had all but shut China’s borders for three years.

The increase also provides a welcome relief to countries whose tourism industries rely on the Chinese and their spending for growth, although the outlook for a sustained recovery in overseas travel is overshadowed by a sluggish mainland economy and volatile financial markets that have seen consumers tighten their belts at home.

“Despite the macroeconomic headwinds, we believe Chinese citizens are still willing to spend on travel-related experiences … we think travel-related spending could continue to outpace this overall domestic consumption,” HSBC said in a research note.

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Bookings to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia combined jumped more than 30% from Feb. 10-17 compared with 2019, according to travel website operator Trip.com, with Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and South Korea also increasing.

The holiday in 2024 lasted for eight days, one day more than the Lunar New year break in 2019.

Reflecting the boost from visa waivers, hotel bookings for Bangkok tripled over the period from Feb. 10-13 year-on-year, while those for Singapore jumped nine-fold, according to travel platform LY.com.

Spending in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia combined on the Chinese mobile payment platform Alipay increased 7.5% in the period from Feb. 9-12 from 2019 levels and nearly 7-fold from last year, Alipay said.

However, overall consumer spending only recovered to 82% of levels four years ago, the company said.

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MIDDLE EAST SURGE

As Chinese scour for new adventures, the Middle East proved a popular Lunar New Year destination, with travel to Saudi Arabia up more than nine-fold from 2019 levels and bookings to United Arab Emirates climbing 60%, Trip.com said.

The gambling hub of Macau, the only place in China where citizens can legally gamble in casinos, recorded a surge in Chinese tourists with more than a million visiting over the holiday and average hotel occupancy rates reaching 95%, according to official data.

The jump in tourists bodes well for some of the world’s largest casino operators in the former Portuguese territory, including Sands China and Wynn Macau.

JP Morgan said in a note it expected daily gross gaming revenues for the peak of the holiday to hit $124 million for the first time in more than four years – higher than the $112 million generated during the October 2023 Golden Week holiday.

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Mass gaming rates were forecast to have reached 120% of pre-COVID levels, it said, adding that it expects February gross gaming revenues to rise by at least 80% year-on-year to $2.36 billion, the highest in more than four years.

Across the border in Hong Kong, leader John Lee said on Tuesday more than 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited the city over Lunar New Year and overall hotel occupancy rates reached 90% in the first few days. Around 1,980 group tours from mainland China visited Hong Kong during the holiday.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry said more than 114,000 Chinese visitors entered the country during the holiday, up 4% from 2019, while some travel agents noted tourists were increasingly opting to travel on their own rather than in groups, which meant fewer organised trips to mega-stores.

“With drops in the number of group tourists, we don’t get to see Chinese tourists carrying big shopping bags anymore,” an official at a travel agency in Seoul told Reuters, requesting not to be named as he is not authorized to speak to media.

In Japan, department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings said that through to Feb. 14 “duty-free sales were significantly higher than the previous year, partly due to the Chinese New Year”.

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A shift in holiday tastes was reflected in some data as travellers sought more experience-based trips, with Alipay reporting Chinese tourists globally spent 70% more on food and beverages compared with pre-COVID levels.

Trip.com said overseas car rentals on its platform jumped 53% compared to 2019 and tickets for scenic experiences abroad soared more than 130%. 

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TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

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TikTok violates Indonesian in-app transactions ban, says minister

Chinese short video app TikTok is still violating Indonesia’s rule that bans in-app transactions, a cabinet minister said on Tuesday, after it took control of the country’s biggest e-commerce platform to restart its online shopping business.

TikTok had been forced to close its relatively new e-commerce service, TikTok Shop, in Indonesia after the country banned online shopping on social media platforms last year, citing the need to protect smaller merchants and users’ data.

Indonesian tech conglomerate GoTo said last month that TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, had completed a deal agreed in December to buy 75.01% of Tokopedia for $840 million.

Teten Masduki, the Indonesian minister for small-medium enterprises (SMEs), who spoke frequently against TikTok Shop prior to last year’s ban, told reporters that TikTok still had not complied with the regulation.

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“The trade minister has to reprimand TikTok so that it complies with the regulation, if not then … the government’s authority is undermined,” he said.

A TikTok representative in Indonesia did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The trade ministry said it was still considering how best to respond to the issue.

TikTok said last year it intended to invest billions of dollars in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the region’s biggest economy. 

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