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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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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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