The United States Department of State on Tuesday reiterated its stance on importance of free press around the world after Indian tax authorities conducted a “survey operation” at the BBC’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices.

The development came less than a month after the British broadcaster released a two-part documentary in January that examined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002.

Officials told PTI that the searches on Tuesday morning by the Income Tax Department were part of a tax evasion investigation into the business operations of the BBC in India. In a survey, the department only covers the business premises of a company and does not search homes and other locations of its promoters or directors.

When asked about the development, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said that freedom of expression and freedom of religion are universal rights and the bedrock of democracies around the world. “It has strengthened this democracy here in this country,” he added. “It has strengthened India’s democracy.”

On whether the Indian tax authorities action went against press freedom, Ned said, “I couldn’t say. We’re aware that these – we are aware of the fact of the searches, but I’m just not in a position to offer a judgement.”

At 10.26 pm on Tuesday, the BBC said that the tax authorities were still at its Delhi and Mumbai offices. “Many staff have now left the building but some have been asked to remain and are continuing cooperate with the ongoing enquiries,” it added. “We are supporting our staff during this time and continue to hope to have this situation resolved as soon as possible.”

So far, the United Kingdom government has not released any official statement about the action. But global media rights advocates and India’s opposition leaders have condemned the searches.

The US-based independent non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists called on Indian authorities to stop harassing journalists.

“Raiding the BBC’s India offices in the wake of a documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi smacks of intimidation,” said Beh Lih Yi, the organisation’s Asia program coordinator. “Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before, and must cease harassing BBC employees immediately, in line with the values of freedom that should be espoused in the world’s largest democracy.”

Human rights organisation Amnesty International said that the Indian authorities were trying to harass and intimidate the BBC for its critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

“The overbroad powers of the Income Tax Department are repeatedly being weaponised to silence dissent,” said Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India’s board. “Last year, tax officials also raided the offices of a number of NGOs, including Oxfam India. These intimidatory acts, which undermine the right to freedom of expression in India, must end now.”

In 2020, Amnesty International had to stop all its work in India after the government froze its bank accounts following raids on its offices.

South Asia Solidarity Group, a UK-based human rights organisation, on Tuesday called the tax survey conducted at the BBC offices as a “blatantly vindictive move” in the wake of the documentary.

The documentary, India: The Modi Question, alleges that a team sent by the British government had found that Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat when the 2002 riots took place, was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the violence against Muslims.

It also reveals for the first time that a report commissioned by the United Kingdom government had stated that the riots had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing”.

The Indian government, however, dismissed it as “a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative”. It also blocked videos and tweets sharing links to the documentary using emergency powers available under the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

The BBC has defended the documentary, saying that it was “rigorously researched according to the highest editorial standards”.

After Tuesday’s searches, BJP national spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia described the BBC as the “most corrupt organisation in the world”. He also accused the broadcaster of unleashing “venomous” reporting against India.