Did you know there was a cycle rally in Dhaka on December 14 demanding an apology from Pakistan for the military brutality in 1971?
Or did you know that 'hundreds of people hit the streets of Dhaka to protest against China and Pakistan for persecuting their minorities' on International Human Rights Day on December 10?
If you missed these two, you must have at least heard of 'Movement to Prevent Militancy in Bangladesh' who formed a human chain in Dhaka to protest Pakistan's role in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks?
None of these ring a bell?
Well, you may have missed all these important events in the clamour of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, our Victory Day celebrations and the drama surrounding the US elections, but the Asian News International (ANI) – one of India's leading news agencies – certainly did not.
If you go into their archives for the last month and type Bangladesh, you will find a lot of coverage about the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian PM Narendra Modi, and interspersed, a number of stories about protests against Pakistan and China not just in Bangladesh, but everywhere around the world.
Given the nature of India-Pakistan relations, such extensive coverage of protests by obscure organisations may at first glance appear innocuous. But if a recent investigation by EU DisinfoLab is to be believed, ANI's coverage of such stories is part of a sinister international network dedicated to spreading disinformation against India's adversaries around the globe.
In a report titled 'Indian Chronicles' published this year, the EU DisinfoLab provides a troubling yet fascinating story of a 15-year international operation to flood the information landscape with mostly anti-Pakistan propaganda using fake media, dead thinktanks and NGOs, dead people, stolen identities, and lower tier Members of European Parliament pretending to represent the views of EU collectively.
According to the report – all the activities can be traced back to a New Delhi-based Srivastava Group. This group seems to have been behind 750 fake media houses in 119 countries, behind 10 UN-accredited NGOs which had originally been created for activism surrounding issues such as seed crushing and canned foods - in far-flung countries such as Zambia - whose 'representatives' suddenly turned up at events on the sidelines of the UN proselytizing about human rights abuses in Pakistan. The group set up fake media organisations such as EP Today and EU Chronicles where individual MEPs wrote op-ed pieces on Pakistan's abuse of minorities. These op-eds then found their way into hundreds of fake media outlets such as Wall Street Sentinel or Vancouver Star, which appear disturbingly close to the real Wall Street Journal or Vancouver Sun. If nothing else, the publication of the same article in so many fake websites ensures that the stories at least show up towards the top in google searches. Some of these MEPs are also taken to tours in South Asia, including to Kashmir and Maldives, and at least on one occasion, to Bangladesh, where they met the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
And what does ANI have to do with all this? Well it turns out ANI has been reporting these 'op-eds' by MEPs in European Chronicles and EP today and circulating them in the mainstream media, from where it has been picked up by mainstream publications such as Hindustan Times, DNA India and Business Standard.
The DisinfoLab report goes on to persuasively argue that there clearly are organisational links between ANI and the international disinformation ring as they discovered at least a few instances of independent video footage circulated by EU Chronicles and ANI, of anti-Pakistan protests, essentially being the same.
Founded in 1971, ANI's coverage has been a staple for not just the Indian media, but for media houses around the world, including in Bangladesh. Only last week, Bangladesh's The Daily Star published an ANI story about a Bangladeshi organisation based in the US protesting outside the Pakistan Embassy.
But as a news agency, where ANI dominates is in providing video footage to over 400 Indian television channels. The company has a virtual monopoly in the Indian market and also serves as a primary source of footage on India for international news agency Reuters. In fact, Reuters owns a 49% stake in one of ANI's companies – ANI Media Pvt Limited, according to the reputed Indian publications The Ken and The Caravan.
Last year, The Caravan – one of India's leading narrative journalism magazines - ran an extensive cover story on ANI titled 'The Image Makers - How ANI reports the Government's Version of the Truth' where it detailed years of campaign by the owners of the company to forge deep ties with the Indian government. ANI once produced documentaries for the Ministry of External Affairs in India and has also reportedly been close to the Ministry of Home, claims the report. Moreover, the media house apparently strategically employed children of Indian politicians such as LK Advani and Indian national security adviser JN Dixit, while they were in government, to ensure its relations with the government remained tight.
However, according to The Caravan, ANI's biggest connection to the government lay in the 1987 marriage between ANI founder Prem Prakash's son Sanjiv to Smita, the daughter of former Principal Information Officer to four Indian Prime Ministers, Ramamohan Rao, who also incidentally served as public relations officer of the Indian army during Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971, and by his own admission, doctored a photo of an Indian paratrooper landing in Tangail and spread it in the media. Smita Prakash is now ANI's editor while Sanjiv is its CEO.
According to the Caravan report, Rao worked for the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India's foreign intelligence agency, and helped ANI secure lucrative content production deals in Kashmir when he was adviser to the Kashmir chief minister. Naturally, his connection to R&AW also brought the media house very close to the intelligence agency, and the report claims for years ANI produced propaganda and provided information to the agency.
The DisinfoLab report, meanwhile, though it says it did not find enough evidence to directly link the disinformation network it uncovered to India's intelligence agencies, it nonetheless discovered a Srivastava-owned company Aglaya, that offers hacking/spy tools for information warfare, who, according to Forbes 'only sold to Indian intelligence agencies'. Interestingly, although the report does not provide any further information, it claims the group is responsible for setting up fake media in Bangladesh as well.
A number of reports on the activities of ANI and the findings of the DisinfoLab have recently been published both in the Indian media and internationally, where both ANI and Reuters refused to comment.
Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, ANI stories continue to spread in our newsfeeds. A cursory search on Google reveals The Daily Star published a story generated by ANI as recently as December 14. The Business Standard partners with Hindustan Times for content, and a number of the HT stories published on tbsnews.net are originally sourced from ANI. A number of reports published in the Dhaka Tribune are attributed to 'Reuters partner ANI'. In fact, every single media organization in Bangladesh either directly sources content from ANI, or from other organisations who source their content from ANI.
Most of these news stories, of course, are run-of-the-mill coverage of events and who-said-what stories. However, given the findings of the DisinfoLab and how the network manages to squeeze through propaganda and fake news in the flow of general stories, it is time news organisations in the country, and everywhere around the world, become more circumspect about who they are sourcing their information from and what their motives are.