A recent investigation by Brussels-based NGO EU DisinfoLab has revealed a sustained 15-year disinformation campaign targeting the EU and UN using a network of more than 750 fake media outlets across 116 countries, to further India's interest, and discredit Pakistan and China internationally. The report - second of its kind, titled "Indian Chronicles", found Delhi-based Srivastava Group – an obscure business organisation – to be at the heart of this disinformation campaign.
Last year, EU DisinfoLab published a report unearthing this campaign for the time by revealing a network of 265 fake news sites, dubious NGOs and think-tanks in more than 65 countries, and also putting the spotlight on the Srivastava Group. This group had previously gained attention for sponsoring a trip for 27 far-right European parliamentarians to Kashmir. EU DisinfoLab found an obscure news website called EP Today being used to push out false narratives to manufacture support towards the actions of the Indian government from the European Union. Following the publication of the report, EP Today disappeared entirely, along with many other websites mentioned the report. You can read about that investigation here.
"To begin with, we had no intention of investigating matters related to South Asia in anyway. It was only after we discovered EP Today that we started getting involved in it," said Alexandre Alaphilippe, the executive director of EU DisinfoLab, in conversation with BOOM.
The latest report reveals how the Srivastava Group would lobby members of the European parliament (MEPs) to write op-eds supporting Indian interests for another such website called EU Chronicle, often against Pakistan or China, which would then be published in many of the other dubious websites run by the group. These op-eds would then be quoted by Asian News International – India's largest video news agency – which would further get picked up and reproduced by mainstream Indian media outlets such as Times of India, Business World, Zee5, Business Standard and The Outlook.
"We could not find any direct link between ANI and the Srivastava Group. However, EU Chronicle was set up on May 6 this year, by May 11 you already had 3 op-eds written, and by May 12 ANI is already quoting EU Chronicle as an independent media," said Alaphilippe. The report found at least 13 instances of ANI carrying such op-eds by MEPs.
BOOM reached out to ANI to seek a comment on the allegations raised in the report, and the story will be updated if and when they respond.
Finally, ANI editor-in-chief put out a statement on this matter, saying, "An attempt has been made by Pakistan & its proxies to hurt ANI's credibility by hurling wild accusations of fake news. Our partners and subscribers fully understand the politics that is behind all this, and continue to repose faith in the depth reach & credibility of our coverage."
Resurrecting Dead Entities
Along with running a vast network of fake media websites, this operation also resurrected defunct media, organisations and think-tanks along with a dead professor.
The Commission to Study the Organisation of Peace (CSOP) is one such organisation that caught the eyes of the researchers at EU DisinfoLab. Founded in the 1930s, the CSOP became inactive in the 1970s, shortly after gaining a UN-accreditation. However, in 2005 it suddenly came back to life along with one of its former chairman, the late Professor Louis B. Sohn - a top 20th century scholar on international law.
"Shockingly, we discovered that the organisation had not only been revived. Its former Chairman and "grandfather of international law in the US", Louis B. Sohn, who passed away in 2006, seemingly attended a UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2007 and participated in an event organised by 'Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan' in Washington D.C. in 2011," the report read.
The report also shines light on how resurrected NGOs and think-tanks linked to the network worked as a lobby in the UN Human Rights Commission to gain support for actions by the Modi administration and promote disapproval of actions by the Pakistani government, and more recently China. It mentions 10 UN-accredited NGOs that have been revived to rally support India in international forums. While, some of these NGOs had some formal links to India, some others have been shut down, and there are some which has no link to the causes it represented - like the Canners International Permanent Committee.
"Before it ceased to exist in 2007, the Canners International Permanent Committee (CIPC) was all about the canning industry. Its reincarnation does not seem so concerned with food any more: it mostly dispatches Geneva-based students to the UN to talk about Pakistan, and even organised side events on human rights at the UN," EU DisinfoLab wrote in an article on its report.
Targetting The EU And UN
In order to promote India's interests, and rally support for actions by the Modi administration, the network has separately targetting both the EU and the UN.
Think-tanks and NGOs took the floor at the UNHRC on behalf of accredited organisations, while lobbying and protesting against Pakistan and China from Geneva. While in Brussels, MEPs were taken on visits and tours, with their op-eds in support for India were taken and distributed by ANI. "Without Times of Geneva and 4 News Agency which stopped their activities following our previous investigation, ANI remains the only press agency to extensively cover the activities of dubious NGOs in Geneva", the report said.
The investigation also revealed that organisations linked to the network hired interns extensively, to speak on their behalf in Geneva and Brussels. It noted that the student hired as intern would usually be enrolled in a European university. "Our hypothesis is that actors linked to EU Chronicles used interns to speak in the United Nations as a way to cover their tracks and make an attribution to India more difficult. These interns were manipulated to serve as one of the many public faces of this massive information operation," the report stated.
EU spokesperson on foreign affairs Peter Stano told the BBC that it was for the Belgian authorities too look into the transparency and finances of the NGOs registered in Brussels, while also affirming EU's committent in fighting disinformation, citing the example of EP Today being taken down as part of this committent.
Rolando Gomez, a UNHRC spokesperson told the BBC that NGOs had the prerogative to raise whichever issue they wished to address, and that any rules stating otherwise would infringe on their freedom of speech.
The group's activity, however, was not limited to the EU and UN alone. "While we could not cover all of it in this second investigation, Indian Chronicles also created a number of obscure companies in Canada, fake media targeting South-Asian populations in Canada, was involved in demonstrations in New York, created fake media in Bangladesh and in the Maldives," the report added.
What About The Srivastava Group?
The Srivastava Group first came to be known for sponsoring an unofficial trip for 27 MEPs to Srinagar last year. This drew immense attention for being a first ever trip by Indian or foreign politicians to Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 - which saw an extended period of curfews, lockdowns and communication suppression. Few months after this trip, EU DisinfoLab came out with its first report which named the group extensively, and tied to the entire operation of lobbying and disinformation in Brussels and Geneva, as part of an "Indian influence network".
The report found Ankit Srivastava to be a major player in this campaign, with more than 400 domain names being purchased using his private email addresses, to be then used to create fake media outlets. Dr. Pramila Srivastava is yet another name from the same family that appears in the investigation.
The report highlighted an incident from 2009, when Punjabi writer and paediatrician Dr Harshindar Kaur spoke at an event at the UN on the issues faced by women in India, with special reference to the practice of female foeticide in Punjab, on which she had done an 8-year long research. Kaur claimed that after the event she was threatened by someone named P. Srivastava - another participant at that event - who identified herself as a senior government official. On her return, Kaur was questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Kaur recently confirmed to BBC that the woman was indeed Dr. Pramila Srivastava.
Despite this being the second report exposing the Srivastava Group, no such actions have been taken against this group in India or in Europe. EP Today, which was earlier used by the group to push out fake news articles, has now been replaced by EU Chronicle after the former was shutdown.
"We think there should be consequences to disinformation and we expect actions to be taken. The biggest failure from institutions would be if another report is released next year on the same actors with the same techniques," Alaphillippe told the BBC.
You can download the full report here.
Updated On: 2020-12-12T08:31:47+05:30