A group has been propagating pro-India disinformation through 750 media sites across 550 domain names for the past 15 years, according to a new report by Brussels-based NGO EU Disinfo Lab.
The report uncovered the activities of a Delhi-based network called Srivastava Group. Led by Ankit Srivatsava, the group was involved in the purchase of more than 400 domain names using his private or organisational email addresses. The report also claims the group has also been impersonating prominent NGOs and scholars.
The report alleges that Indian news agency Asian News International (ANI) has been playing a massive role in disseminating the disinformation network's material. The articles published on the dummy news websites were quoted as credible reports by ANI from the European media, and were picked and reproduced without fact-checking by Indian media and news channels.
[..]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)[..]
Asian News International is considered one of the biggest news agencies in India and the largest television agency of India and it allegedly has close ties with the Indian government. The Caravan magazine reports that in recent times, Smita Prakash, the editor of ANI, has been praised by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders and supporters as a beacon of hope for independent journalism.
In 2019, EU Disinfo Lab had already uncovered over 265 pro-India sites operating across 65 countries. These sites that are collectively named as “Indian Chronicles” by EU DisInfo Lab have been primarily used to produce and catalyse content to undermine Pakistan and other countries, and serve Indian interests on an international level.
EU Disinfo Lab says this is the “largest network” of disinformation they have ever uncovered.
According to the newest report, these think tanks and NGOs linked with the Srivatsava Group lobbied and spoke during UN side events in Geneva and even organized protests. The network was also allegedly used to spread rhetoric against China and influence decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Parliament.
The news has unleashed a new war of narratives between India and Pakistan.
Srivastava Group is the same conglomerate that had arranged, with support from a dubious NGO Women’s Economic and Social Think-Tank (WESTT), a visit of far-right Members of the European Parliament to the Indian-administered Kashmir last year after it was put under a lockdown.
Meanwhile, ANI's editor Smita Prakash tweeted accusing Pakistan and its “proxies” of trying to discredit ANI's credibility:
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
— Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) December 11, 2020
The researchers concluded that their findings “should serve as a call to action for decision-makers to put in place a relevant framework to sanction actors abusing international institutions”.
No evidence was provided of whether the network was linked to the Indian government. Though the investigation has not provided any direct evidence of the role of Indian intelligence, an investigative report by Indian news outlet The Caravan has hinted at this.
The report 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. (…)
(…) Indian Chronicles effectively benefited from the track record of these organisations while pursuing their own agenda: discrediting Pakistan and promoting Indian interests at UN conferences and hearings. (…)
Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan was quick to comment on Twitter after the report's release:
Pakistan has consistently drawn attention of int community to India's subversive activities to undermine democracies in the region; & export/fund extremism through structures of fake news orgs & “think tanks”. Recently GoP provided dossier to UN of India's state terrorism in Pak
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 10, 2020
Khan asserted that the international community needs to “take notice of a rogue Indian regime” that now threatens “the stability of the global system.”
On December 12, Pakistan called upon the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to immediately begin “investigation and delisting of the 10 fake NGOs created by India to malign Pakistan”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in a press conference that they have called upon the UN to create processes that ensure that the international system is not manipulated through such influence operations.
India, on the other hand, has slammed the report. Nasir Aziz Khan, central spokesperson of the United Kashmir People’s National Party (UKPNP) claimed that the reports are being used by Pakistan to divert attention from real issues. In a media briefing, Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) accused Pakistan of circulating fabricated dossiers:
In fact, if you are looking at disinformation, the best example is the country next door which is circulating fictional and fabricated dossiers and purveys a regular stream of fake news.
On November 23, India provided a dossier accusing fighters from Pakistan of attempting an attack in the disputed Kashmir region to some UN Security Council (UNSC) members.
A day later, Pakistan responded by sending their own dossier to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accusing India of stoking “terrorism” in Pakistan.