Bogus stories and half-baked conspiracy theories are surging through the internet.
New Delhi, India – A Brussels-based NGO working to combat disinformation against the European Union has unearthed a 15-year-old operation run by an Indian entity that used hundreds of fake media outlets and the identity of a dead professor to target Pakistan.
The EU DisinfoLab in its report, Indian Chronicles: deep dive into a 15-year operation targeting the EU and United Nations to serve Indian interests, termed this as the “largest network” of disinformation they have exposed so far.
The report released on Wednesday said the disinformation network run by the Srivastava Group, a New Delhi-based entity, was designed primarily to “discredit Pakistan internationally” and influence decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Parliament.
The report said in order to “undermine Pakistan internationally”, the network “resurrected dead NGOs” at the UN, impersonated the EU and laundered content produced by fake media to real media, and reached millions in South Asia and across the world.
MEA denies the European agency's claim of an Indian "network of disinformation". What's odd is that the report doesn't actually blame the government. https://t.co/FyNct68Hvy
— Suhasini Haidar (@suhasinih) December 12, 2020
Srivastava Group had come under the spotlight last year for arranging a visit of far-right Members of the European Parliament to the Indian-administered Kashmir after it was stripped of its special status and put under a security and communications lockdown.
The report has named Srivastava Group – a shadowy business conglomerate – and Asian News International (ANI), India’s largest video news agency and a partner of Reuters news agency, as the prime players of the operation.
Last year, the researchers of EU DisinfoLab had uncovered 265 pro-Indian sites operating across 65 countries, and traced them back to the New Delhi-based Srivastava Group.
The researchers said they had “uncovered an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticising Pakistan repeatedly. We could tie at least 10 of them directly to the Srivastava family, with several other dubious NGOs pushing the same messages.”
“These UN-accredited NGOs work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks and minority-rights NGOs in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them – like the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities (EOPM), Baluchistan House and the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) – were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group,” it said.
In Geneva, the EU DisinfoLab report says, these think-tanks and NGOs are in charge of lobbying, organising demonstrations and speaking during news conferences and UN side events. They were repeatedly given the floor at the UN on behalf of the accredited organisations, the report said.
The International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies (IINS), a think-tank created by the Srivastava Group in Brussels, organised trips for MEPs to Kashmir, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
“Some of these trips led to much institutional controversy, as the delegations of MEPs were often presented as official EU delegations when they were in fact not travelling on behalf of the Parliament,” the report said.
“Ever since we heard the visit of the European parliamentarians who came to Kashmir, we knew that there were attempts being made in Europe to organise some form of support for the [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi government, which was not natural but instigated some way or the other,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan magazine.
The role of ANI
The European NGO has alleged that the ANI – which considers itself as South Asia’s leading multimedia news agency providing content to TV, newspapers, digital platforms and mobile apps – has played a big role in the disinformation network.
The DisinfoLab report says that fake media websites and NGOs run by the Srivastava Group lobbied members of the European Parliament to write op-eds taking pro-India stances, often against Pakistan or China.
The articles, the report said, were then published on the group’s dummy news websites which the ANI would quote as credible reports from the European media, from where the Indian media and news channels reproduced and disseminated them, often unchecked.
“The coverage – and often distortion – by ANI of the content produced in Brussels and Geneva led us to the Big News Network and the World News Network – an entire network of 500+ fake local media in 95 countries that have helped reproduce negative iterations about Pakistan (or China),” according to the report.
“We also realised that the content produced was primarily targeted at Indian nationals, with an extensive coverage of these barely known ‘media’, MEPs and ‘NGOs’ in Europe,” the report said.
However, this big revelation about ANI has not come as a surprise to many in India.
“The reason, the overall contour, doesn’t come as a surprise is because we have been looking at the ANI ourselves and we have done a long story on it,” said Bal of The Caravan, which did a cover story on the ANI and how it amplified government voice.
The piece “looked at what the ANI has been doing within the country and in terms of reportage on Pakistan, reportage on elements within the country itself, whether we are talking about Punjab, whether we are talking about dissidents etc. There are a lot of questions about the role ANI plays and I think we documented it well.”
“That these two things should combine together into a large-scale disinformation campaign by Indian government which extends beyond the present government to the previous government. Well that is not a surprise but the extent of it and the Indian ability to do so certainly comes as a revelation,” Bal added.
Al Jazeera reached out to the ANI and the Reuters for a response but did not receive it by the time the story was published.
‘Rogue Indian regime’
Reacting to the India Chronicles report, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday said his country has consistently drawn the attention of the international community to India’s “subversive activities to undermine democracies in the region and export/fund extremism through structures of fake news organisations and bogus think tanks”.
“The revelations by EU DisinfoLab on the widespread Indian network of subversive activities vindicates Pakistan’s position and exposes its detractors,” Khan wrote on Twitter.
“The international community needs to take notice of a rogue Indian regime that now threatens the stability of the global system.”
A Pakistani national security official told Al Jazeera that the scale and depth of the disinformation network being run by the Indians is “staggering, to say the least”.
“Pakistan knew about this kind of disinformation that India has been doing, we have talked about it publicly and in private [with international interlocutors]. Today, an independent source can show the world that the scope of the Indian campaign against Pakistan is huge,” said the Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Pakistan on Friday called upon the UNHRC to immediately begin “investigation and delisting of the 10 fake NGOs created by India to malign Pakistan”.
“We also call on the United Nations to create processes that ensure that the international system is not manipulated through such influence operations,” Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in a news conference.
“Additionally, we call on the EU Parliament to begin a credible investigation into the manipulation of the EU Parliament and its legislative process by these fake organisations involved in anti-Pakistan propaganda under a fully funded disinformation and influence operation, run by India,” Shah said.
Peter Stano, the lead spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Commission, told Al Jazeera that they are aware of the report.
“We first need to assess all the details contained in the research. But, what we can say already now is that this important report by EU DisinfoLab shows once again the vital importance of civil society, as well as the private sector, academic and individual research activities in jointly confronting the diverse threat posed by disinformation and actors engaged in this malicious activity,” he said.
“We have recognised the disinformation as one of the hybrid threats that are targeting the European Union and are taking steps against the disinformation and actors engaged in spreading them,” he said.
Stano said the expose will be raised during the EU-India Strategic Partnership dialogue.
Asad Hashim contributed to the report from Islamabad, Pakistan.