ANI, Srivastava Group named in massive EU disinformation campaign to promote Modi government’s interests

09 December, 2020

The EU DisinfoLab, an NGO based in Brussels, has published a report detailing one of the largest ever disinformation campaigns in Europe, organised by Indian stakeholders, to further the interests of the Indian government and the prime minister Narendra Modi. Among the prime players of this disinformation campaign are Asian News International, India’s largest video news agency, and the Srivastava group—a shadowy business conglomerate that came into the spotlight in India after it organised a visit to Kashmir for far-right members of the European Parliament, in late 2019. The report, titled “Indian Chronicles,” is based on a year-long investigation by the NGO, which was built upon and published exclusively by news organisations such as Les Jours in France. Les Jours quoted a misinformation expert who described this campaign as “a network … whose scope and impact are comparable to the operation of Russian interference during the campaign in the United States in 2016.”

The DisinfoLab report described how fake media websites and NGOs run by the Srivastava group lobbied members of the European parliament, or MEPs, to write op-eds taking pro-India stances, often against Pakistan or China, which were then published on the group’s dummy news websites. ANI then quoted these as credible reports from European media, from where Indian media and news channels reproduced and disseminated them, unchecked. The Les Jours report suggested that the entire operation could be linked to Indian intelligence services.

According to DisinfoLab, the network has been frequently used to manufacture calls of solidarity from European leaders for the Modi government’s actions. One example that the report cited concerned surgical strikes by the Indian Army in Pakistan, ahead of the 2019 general elections. EP Today, a dummy website run by the Srivastava group, published an op-ed by Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European parliament. Czarnecki wrote in support of the strikes. ANI then reproduced this opinion, but with a crucial twist—it claimed this to be the EU’s official statement, announcing its support of Modi. This disinformation was then reported by other Indian outlets, such as the Economic Times, reaching millions of Indians. 

The DisinfoLab report also found that for 15 years, organisations connected to the Srivastava group had been making representations at the Council for Human Rights, at the United Nations, primarily undermining Pakistan. According to the report, organisations connected to the Srivastava group even “resurrected” dead people and dead NGOs—that is, used their names and identities—to create an air of credibility around themselves. 

The latest DisinfoLab report builds upon a 2019 report that had exposed EP Today’s workings. In October 2019, the European External Action Service’s East Strat Com, effectively the EU’s task force to tackle disinformation, revealed that the EP Today website had been republishing a large amount of news directly from Russia Today and Voice of America. When DisinfoLab investigated the organisation, it found “a large number of articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India related matters.” The investigation also linked EP Today to a “large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group.” The IP address of EP Today was registered by an NGOs linked to the Srivastava group. Their findings, which included at least 265 fake news sites that operated in around sixty countries, all linked to Indian interests, were published in a December 2019 report. Following this publication, the EP Today website disappeared,  as did a range of other news organisation named in the report.

The DisinfoLab’s 2020 report states that EP Today has been reconstituted into a new publication called EU Chronicle. On 14 August 2020, the Chronicle’s twitter account posted a video by Thierry Mariani, a French far-right leader, in which he said, “I want to extend my sincere and warmest greetings to Prime Minister Modi on this Indian Independence Day. It is a pleasure to see India excel under your dynamic leadership as the world battles Covid19.” The Chronicle then posted similar messages from other right-wing leaders, such as Czarnecki and Fulvio Martusciello, from Italy. A month later, EU Chronicle posted a video of Mariani wishing Modi on his birthday. The DisinfoLab found that a majority of the content published by the EU Chronicle was copying press releases or reports that seemed like they had been written by bots. Despite its limited presence, it has published multiple articles by Czarnecki and Martusciello. All three—Mariani, Czarnecki and Martusciello—were among the MEPs who visited Kashmir. 

When asked about whether the report had proof of ANI working directly with the Srivastava companies, AlexandreAlaphilippe, the director of DisinfoLab, wrote that he had “no comment,” before adding: “But I encourage you to look at these facts: eu chronicle set up on 6th May. 11th may already 3 op-eds from 3 MEPs. On 12th May, ANI quotes Eu chronicle as an independent media and reliable source.”

The Les Jours report shows how the Indian lobby gets European politicians to support Indian foreign interests. Julie Ward, a British member of the European parliament, was approached by Madi Sharma, a lobbyist, to cosign articles for EP Today on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (Sharma was among the organisers of the Kashmir visit.) Ward later posed at least one question suggested by Sharma in the European parliament. “Then I was asked to co-sign a column on human-rights violations in Balochistan”—in Pakistan—“which made me uncomfortable, it seemed very biased to me,” Ward told Antoine Hasday and Nicolas Quénel, who reported for Les Jours. “Even though I am critical of the Pakistani government, I was increasingly worried about Narendra Modi’s (nationalist and authoritarian drift).” The article also linked Sharma to EU Chronicle.

Les Jours quoted Alaphilippe, the director of DisinfoLab, as saying that op-eds were common in Brussels. “This allows MEPs to put forward their positions and it reinforces the credibility of the media that publishes it. This can also be used to gain the confidence of the deputies for lobbyists before suggesting parliamentary questions to them, for example.” The report suggests that this is a favoured tactic of Indian agents to push soft-power in Europe.

The Les Jours report suggests that Indian intelligence services could be behind the Srivastava group’s misinformation operations. It cited various examples to justify this claim. It quoted a statement by the Lawyers for Human Rights International, a human-rights organisation based in Punjab, on an incident related to Pramila Srivastava, a board member of the group and wife of the group’s founder. Pramila threatened a pediatrician for speaking about infanticide in Punjab in the UN Human Rights Commission, LHRI stated. Pramila responded to the doctor’s presentation saying it would create “a false image of India,” and that doctor would have to “assume the consequences.” The pediatrician was questioned by the Indian intelligence services on her return to the country. 

Les Jours noted that a company run by Ankur Srivastava, also of the Srivastava family, makes malware which he said is only sold to Indian intelligence services. It also noted that the Srivastava group runs several fake news websites including Socialist WeeklyKhalsa Akhbar Lahore and the Times of Azad Kashmir, which are likely linked to Indian intelligence services. When asked about this, Alaphilippe said, “We do not have a formal attribution of this operation. However, its sophistication as well as its physical presence both in Brussels and Geneva is something that really intrigues us. You need more than a few computers to plan and sustain such an action.”

A sizable portion of the 2020 DisinfoLab report discusses how ANI misrepresents reports from EU Chronicle and other Srivastava group linked organisations to convince an Indian audience that Modi’s actions have support in Europe. The report notes that Yahoo News India and BP Business World have reproduced at least 8 ANI dispatches based on content originating from EU Chronicle, and ZEE5 has reproduced at least 9 segments of content. The Business Standardnewspaper and the Times of India have also used this type of content. According to the count of DisinfoLab investigators, ANI has already copied content published by EU Chronicle 13 times in just six months. It is unclear why ANI so often republishes the work of such an obscure news organisation—the news organisation did not respond to Les Jours requests for comment.

The 2020 DisinfoLab report also points to how NGOs and freshly restored international organisations linked to the Srivastava network worked as a lobby in the UN Human Rights Commission to whitewash state-led Indian atrocities and highlight violence in Pakistan. The DisinfoLab identified at least ten NGOs as part of the Indian disinformation network. Some of these had formal links to India, and some had even been shut down before they were restarted to serve Indian needs. The report states that the Canners International Permanent Committee of Conservation—a French conservation NGO which closed down in 2007—was restarted by the Srivastava network to speak about Pakistan at the UNHRC, often portraying it in a negative light. 

Similarly, DisinfoLab notes, the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, an international organisation that ceased all activities in the 1970s, was resurrected by the network to frequently criticise Pakistan in Geneva. The email ID of CSOP was used to register other websites linked to the Indian network. In the jargon of Geneva, DisinfoLab noted, such organisations are called “government-organised” non-governmental organisations, sponsored by states to represent a country’s interests or damage the image of a rival. The report, however, stated that this did not clearly violate any rules of the UN or the UNHRC.

“ANI remains the only press agency to extensively cover the activities of dubious NGOs in Geneva,” the DisinfoLab report says, describing the agency’s work as “distortion.” Quenel, one of the Les Jours reporters, described an instance where ANI seemed fully aware that it was misreporting news from NGOs in Geneva. In September, a man called Lakhu Luhana spoke at the UNHRC, representing World Environment and Resources Council—an organisation that disappeared in the 1980s, but was resurrected to serve Indian strategic interests like the CSOP and the CIPCC. Quenel noted that ANI had issued a dispatch and a tweet on the speech, which focused on the “persecution” of the Pakistani Sindhi minority. “In the ANI tweet it is WERC which is mentioned, however, the title of the dispatch, mentions a completely different association: the World Sindhi Congress,” Quenel said. “A simple search of the World Sindhi Congress shows clearly that Lakhu Luhana is its general secretary. ANI’s spontaneous mention of the World Sindhi Congress demonstrates that it was aware of the duplicity of the WERC’s role at Geneva.”

The Les Jours report notes that in 2019, Mariani also went to Geneva on the invitation of the South Asia Democratic Forum—a Brussels-based think tank. The SADF was created in 2011 by Paulo Casaca, a former MEP, and is domiciled in Brussels at the same address as an office of an organisation linked to the Srivastava group. The domain name of the think tank was also registered directly by the Indian company. In September 2019, SADF sent Mariani by plane to Geneva, in business class, and paid for two nights at the luxurious Beaurivage hotel. All this, in order to attend a press conference on Jammu and Kashmir, organised by the think tank—an event, Quenel noted, “that was covered by the media of the Srivastava group, and by the ANI.”

“In our past studies, we never encountered such a coordination between different stakeholders,” Alaphilippe said. “The fact, that during 15 years, and even after being partially exposed last year, this operation is able to keep its activities shows the sophistication and the willingness of the actors behind Indian Chronicles. It is definitely the biggest network we’ve exposed.” 

Disinformation “has been part of the playbook of all countries,” Alaphilippe added. “For instance, we found out a very similar operation serving Pakistani interests in Geneva, which points at how all countries are learning from each other and adapt … Just imagine if the same operation would have been carried out by China or Russia. What would have been the headlines of the media?” He called for action from European bodies against such acts, saying that “the biggest failure from institutions would be if another report is released next year on the same actors with the same techniques. This would mean that EU institutions … are ok with foreign interferences.”