New Delhi: Two years after publishing an investigative report on ANI, a European non-profit group has again put the Indian news agency in its crosshairs – this time for allegedly using quotes and statements from think tanks and experts which do not exist.
EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based NGO specialising in targeting disinformation campaigns, has published a new report, “Bad Sources: How Indian news agency ANI quoted sources that do not exist”. It said that it received no comment from either ANI or other Indian publications which reprinted ANI stories with content that referenced the groups and personalities which were allegedly made up.
The EU DisinfoLab report, published on Thursday, is the third in the series of reports published in 2019 and 2020, which look at an Indian influence network based on fake NGOs and experts allegedly run by the Delhi-based Srivastava Group and “amplified by ANI”.
ANI has emerged in the past seven years as the preferred outlet of the Narendra Modi government, with ministers like Amit Shah and S. Jaishankar using the agency to put out interviews.
The 2019 report claimed to have uncovered an Indian influence network covering “265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries”. The 2020 report claimed to have unearthed a 15-year-old influence operation “targeting international institutions and serving Indian interests”, which was done primarily through resurrecting “dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs” – and in some cases, “dead people”.
After the publication of the 2020 report, the then Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan claimed that the research report was a “vindication” of his country’s position that India is involved in “subversive activities” to undermine democracies in the region. Dismissing the report, the Indian government had said in December 2020 that as a “responsible democracy, India does not practice disinformation campaigns”.
The latest report centres on the website of a Canadian-based think tank, International Forum for Rights and Security (IFFRAS). ANI quoted IFFRAS more than 200 times between May 2021 and January 2023. “In most instances, it was not only quoting but using IFFRAS ‘reports’ as the backbone of the articles,” the report says.
Though IFFRAS was dissolved in 2014, its website remained online and was being updated. EU DisinfoLab said that the same IP address hosted the IFFRAS website and other websites from the Srivastava group.
The report said that it tried to trace the speakers mentioned in the conference summaries on the website, but most seemed not to exist at all. “Our guess is that the sole purpose of the IFFRAS is to produce content that can be covered by ANI and then republished widely throughout the Indian press,” said the report
These BS personae would make us laugh, except for the fact that they end up being republished as experts in several Indian media outlets, thus contributing to the propaganda loop and imposing narratives that sediment over time. 9/N pic.twitter.com/9p3FNi6Vn9
— EU DisinfoLab (@DisinfoEU) February 23, 2023
Wondering if IFFRAS was a “single rotten apple”, the EU DisinfoLab researchers then looked into other foreign experts at ‘think tanks’ that are mentioned frequently by ANI. They came across the Policy Research Group (POREG), whose “geopolitical experts” were quoted frequently by ANI on issues like Pakistan’s army doctrines and Chinese foreign policy.
The report claimed that despite numerous efforts to contact these experts with names like ‘James Duglous Crickton’, ‘Magda Lipan’ – sometimes misspelled as Magad Lipan or Magda Lipin – and ‘Ms Valentin Popescu’, they did not seem to be available.
“Yet somehow, despite the laughable misspellings and bios, these James Bond fans, basketball players and management consultants have become geopolitical experts, quoted by ANI numerous times,” the report says.
A third organistaion which ANI started quoted reports in 2021 were published by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), a think tank based in France and registered in Hong Kong which genuinely exists. But, alongside the legitimate reports by the CPFA team, ANI was publishing content that EU DisinfoLab “could not attribute to real individuals”.
The authors of the report said they again tried to reach out to two “experts” who were ostensibly working at CPFA but “did not receive any response to our requests”.
According to the report, the fake entities and personalities, seemingly based in Europe and North America, were probably propped up as “a way of bringing more credibility and legitimacy to these narratives”, which “almost entirely” were about criticising Pakistan and China.
“Thus, the actors involved seem to prefer using badly constructed fake profiles or fake organisations, even when previously uncovered, rather than relying on real organisations and people,” said the report.
“Worse still, ANI does not seem to be concerned by being the only major agency quoting them as a primary source. In other words, journalists working at ANI must know these sources are fabricated – and if they don’t, they are failing as journalists. In fact, who really cares?” the report asks.
EU DisinforLab said that ANI has “at least, failed its readership by not respecting the fundamentals of the Charter of Munich”. It added, “The fact that some of the ‘organisations’ mentioned use fake personae and are trying to hide their tracks while counting on being regularly quoted by ANI shows that ANI is, de facto, playing a key role in this influence operation.”
The latest EU DisinfoLab report was released in conjunction with the “Story Killers” project to investigate the disinformation-for-hire-industry. Coordinated by French non-profit Forbidden Stories, the project hopes to continue the work of slain Kannada-language journalist Gauri Lankesh.
ANI was founded as Asian Films Laboratories Pvt. Ltd. in 1971, and was renamed ANI in the 1990s. Though questions have been raised about ANI’s independence and the veracity of its reports, it has remained the most popular source of information for Indian media organisations. Reuters held a 49% stake in ANI until December 2022, when it was forced to reduce its shares to comply with revised rules on foreign direct investment in media platforms.