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Op-ed articles falsely attributed to their authors, some of them European lawmakers. Journalists who seem not to exist. Anti-Pakistan content ripped from other websites and repackaged to be read by hundreds of millions in India.
All of it, seemingly out of an office park in Ghent.
EU Chronicle, a website claiming to deliver “news from the European Union,” is the newest iteration of an influence campaign run by an Indian organization called the Srivastava Group, according to research by NGO EU DisinfoLab shared with POLITICO.
The purpose of the website appears to be to further Indian interests and malign New Delhi’s rivals including Pakistan and China.
The anti-Pakistan, anti-China content published on the website is often reused by the Indian news agency ANI and hundreds of other domains, including outlets such as the Sierra Leone Times or TajikistanNews.net. According to EU DisinfoLab research, Indian business magazine BW Business World published at least eight clips from ANI that were based on EU Chronicle material.
While sometimes relying on MEPs for content, EU Chronicle’s main target audience is not the Brussels crowd, the research shows. It’s mainly a feeder for mainstream Indian publications that pick up the news accessed by hundreds of millions in India.
Some of the EU lawmakers featured on the website denied having written op-eds published in their name. Others said they were happy to have a platform where they can broadcast their sympathies for the Indian government.
In addition to EU Chronicle, EU DisinfoLab said the Group coordinates a number of organizations fronting as NGOs also working to wield influence in the Parliament. These include the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT), the South Asia Democracy Forum and Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan.
“What we learned in this investigation is that it is possible to turn EU Institutions into unwitting actors of a 15-year influence operation. With lobbying and fake media, Indian Chronicles [the name DisinfoLab has given to the operation] has been successful in building a strong sense of a constant official support of the EU to Indian interests, reaching millions in South-Asia,” said Gary Machado, EU DisinfoLab’s managing director.
He explained how the website works to distort content. For example, a pro-Indian comment spoken in a personal capacity by a single MEP is modified to sound like the official voice of the whole Parliament. “When dozens of Indian media write that ‘EU backs India’s surgical strikes’ based on a single MEP position, we believe it should not be neglected simply because the disinformation takes place far away from the European Union,” Machado said, referring to military action India took against Pakistan last year, and which did not receive the EU’s blessing.
India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed political rivals in South Asia. They have fought multiple wars, and went to the brink of one more last year after India conducted air strikes in Pakistani territory in response to a terror attack it blamed Pakistan for.
Much of their dispute is centered around the region of Kashmir, which is currently divided between the two countries, but neither formally accepts the de facto border. Internationally, India blames Pakistan for cross-border terrorism, and both blame each other for persecuting the religious minorities in their countries — Muslims in India, Hindus in Pakistan.
Thierry Mariani, an MEP who belongs to the far-right Identity and Democracy group and wrote op-eds on EU Chronicle, is happy to put his name on anti-Pakistan content. He also sent personal video messages wishing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi happy birthday via the website’s Twitter handle.
“I stand by my political choices. Did I know [EU Chronicle] is pro-India? I don’t care, it’s not a question I ask myself,” he said.
The French MEP, who is a member of the Parliament’s special committee on foreign interference, which deals with disinformation, added: “What matters is not whether it’s an Indian, Pakistani or Javanese website, but rather what I write and what I defend — and I fight against Pakistan.” He said he couldn’t remember who exactly got in touch with him to write the op-eds.
The Brussels front
It’s not the first time a site with seemingly EU credentials looks to be backed by the Indian Srivastava Group.
In Brussels, a website called EPToday was part of an operation that would highlight anti-Pakistan comments by some MEPs and events held at the European Parliament where Pakistan would be criticized — normally by the Srivastava-backed groups like WESTT or South Asia Democracy Forum. Those comments and events would then also be picked up and amplified by news outlets in India. In addition, the website would also aggregate news from Russian-backed outlet RT. It was shut down days after POLITICO reported on it, with research from EUDisinfoLab. Its Twitter handle was suspended, and its Facebook page disappeared.
EUDisinfoLab said EU Chronicle, which went live in May 2020, is doing the same thing. The website publishes articles with headlines like “Follow the money — Pakistan’s money laundering and terror financing trail” and “Pakistan – Where the rate of growth in graveyards is bigger than the economic growth.” Most of these articles are published anonymously.
The website’s Twitter handle has published a series of videos detailing human rights abuses in Pakistan with the hashtag #PakistanHorrors. Conversely, it published another video series of MEPs congratulating India on its independence day and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday.
The names of the website’s staffers on the website are “probably not real,” according to EUDisinfoLab, and the articles attributed to them are also syndicated content published automatically. An anonymous article from June is almost entirely copy-pasted from a POLITICO article, without accreditation.
A Google search provided no links to EU Chronicle journalists’ profiles apart from where they are mentioned in EU Chronicle. The company’s address directed to a Regus office park in Ghent.
None of the people listed as EU Chronicle journalists replied to a request for comment.
The articles with real bylines include European lawmakers, either with or without their consent. Overall, 11 MEPs’ names appear on op-eds for EU Chronicle, most of them critical of Pakistan and China, India’s other big rival. Two of them, Grzegorz Tobiszowski (Polish, ECR) and Giuseppe Milazzo (Italian, EPP), denied having written the opinion pieces.
Tobiszowski “has never been interviewed by EU Chronicle on any topic and hasn’t provided them any comments whatsoever,” his office said.
Milazzo, whose name appears on an article criticizing Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policy towards its minority Ahmadiyya community, said he was not asked to write anything for the site. “We’re not really involved in Pakistani issues,” an official from his office said. “I don’t know how they could quote us without saying anything at all.”
Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella (S&D), whose name appeared on an op-ed calling on EU leaders not to attend the G20 conference in Saudi Arabia, said that while the quotes attributed to him in the article are accurate, he did not write it. “Some of our pieces are used for strange news, I guess,” one of his staffers said.
Other lawmakers featured on the website including Ryszard Czarnecki (Polish, ECR), Fulvio Martusciello (Italian, EPP) and French MEPs Virginie Joron and Julie Lechanteux (ID) —none of them responded to multiple requests for comment.
Martusciello and Czarnecki, both of whom have multiple op-eds in their name on EU Chronicle, have a longer association with the Srivastava Group. They both wrote pieces for the defunct EPToday, have participated in Parliament events critical of Pakistan, and they both went on a controversial trip to Indian-administered Kashmir last year, which was also organized by the Srivastava Group. Lechanteux, Joron and Mariani also went on the trip to Kashmir.
‘International business broker’ at the center
Tarabella’s office also said Madi Sharma, the self-styled “international business-broker” who organized the Kashmir trip, as the one who solicited him for an article on EU Chronicle. After Tarabella’s office asked Sharma to remove his byline from the article, the whole article was removed.
Sharma did not respond to request for comment, but according to correspondence shared with POLITICO, she said any connection between her and EUChronicle was “fake news.” She also declined to speak about her connection with the Srivastava Group, saying her “personal and professional relationships are confidential.”
She accused EU DisinfoLab of having paid a number of publications, including POLITICO, and claimed EU DisinfoLab itself was paid “by a third party to produce a media disinformation campaign against me (and others.)” POLITICO was not paid by EU DisinfoLab for this report.
According to DisinfoLab, nine out of the 11 MEPs who appeared in EU Chronicle also had ties to the Srivastava Group either because they participated in the Kashmir visit or they wrote for EPToday.
Most of them come belong to the far right, highlighting the ideological alignment between Europe and India’s nationalisms.
“If you have a government led by a very right-wing, anti-Muslim nationalist, of course that’s going to appeal to the Islamophobic, right-wing, nationalist Europeans,” said former U.K. MEP Julie Ward, who was also approached by Madi Sharma to write anti-Pakistan content when she was still in the European Parliament.
“That’s why Modi likes European’s far right,” she added.