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Exposing the fake news war against Pakistan – East Asia Forum

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Author: Imtiaz Gul, CRSS Islamabad

For nearly 15 years, a network comprising over a thousand mostly Indian news outlets and domains operating across the world systematically influenced international opinion against Pakistan. Unquestioned by key officials in the United States and Europe, these sources of motivated information and disinformation constituted an essential part of a pro-India group’s campaign against Pakistan.

Students chant slogans under the shade of national flag, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, according to Pakistani officials, during a march in Lahore, Pakistan, 28 February 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza).

Much mainstream commentary on Pakistan remains largely unforgiving and negatively biased. Senior state dignitaries from the United States and Europe have resonated the views espoused by websites and newspapers recently called out for spreading disinformation.

On 9 December 2020, Brussels-based fake news watchdog EU DisinfoLab blew the lid off a systematic campaign stoking adverse views on Pakistan: a concerted program under the umbrella of the shadowy Delhi-based Srivastava Group. EU DisinfoLab dug up startling revelations of a massive cross-continental network of hundreds of news outlets and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) — ten of them accredited with the United Nations — that debilitated Pakistan’s image and may have served as extensions and promoters of the Indian government’s foreign policy objectives.

EU DisinfoLab’s Indian Chronicles report detailed a 15-year concerted campaign involving as many as 750 fake media outlets and 550 domains across 119 countries. This network apparently served interests in India in two ways. First, it amplified New Delhi’s foreign policy ambitions. Second, it cast Pakistan — and China to a lesser extent — in a negative light.

The major findings of the report, which ‘uncovered an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs’, some of which tied ‘directly to the Srivastava family’, suggest that the campaign was aimed at discrediting Pakistan internationally and blowing up its internal issues — such as minority rights and security. It had also been designed to influence decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Parliament.

The campaign also engaged in identity theft, including stealing the name of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament, and an image of James Purnell, a former British government minister. Professor Louis Sohn, regarded as one of the founding fathers of international human rights law, died at age 92 in 2006. Yet he was listed as a Commission to Study the Organization of Peace (CSOP) participant at a UNHRC session in 2007 and at a separate event in Washington DC in 2011. CSOP was only one of dozens of organisations that were resurrected from dormancy for deployment as a proxy information tool against Pakistan.

Entities apparently used to bring Pakistan into disrepute included NGOs such as Balochistan House, Gilgit Baltistan Forum, Balochistan Forum, European Organization for Pakistani Minorities, and the South Asia Democratic Forum.

These UN-accredited NGOs worked in coordination with non-accredited think tanks and minority-rights NGOs in Brussels and Geneva, claimed the Indian Chronicle authors. Several of them were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group.

According to the report, SADF organized at least ten events such as demonstrations in front of the UN Broken Chair monument in Geneva, outside the UN headquarters in New York, events on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, or in front of Pakistan Embassy in Ottawa. Balochistan House also organised conferences and events hosted in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg, with the help of parliamentarians such as Richard Czarnecki and Fulvio Martusciello.

These events criticised Pakistan and used to raise contentions on the state of religious or ethnic minorities or question policies on issues such as terrorism.

EU DisinfoLab Executive Director Alexandre Alaphilippe stated that it was the ‘largest network’ of disinformation they have exposed. The watchdog partially exposed the network in 2019, but now says the operation is much larger and more resilient than first suspected.

Without really figuring out the ‘movers and shakers’ behind the negative publicity against it, Pakistan has struggled to manage Shia–Sunni rivalries, terror outfits and disgruntled ethnic Pashtun and Baloch movements. Islamabad failed to focus on how Indian networks — ANI, Zee News and New Delhi Times, as well as hundreds of their partners abroad — were exploiting these internal fault-lines.

These three news organisations specifically focused on Balochistan, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and religious minorities when reporting on Pakistan, serving as primary sources of information for their partners in Europe and the United States.

‘Not stopping this sort of malicious activity says a lot about the Indian government’, says the ANU’s Claude Rakisits. New Delhi may not have been behind the campaign, but they certainly turned a blind eye to it.

The Indian Chronicles report may now represent an opportunity for Pakistan — whose image is reeling from the consequences of the long-term campaign from India mounted against it — to set things right through astute diplomacy.

This affair reveals a deliberate and targeted disinformation campaign from within the world’s largest democracy. British jurist Nazir Gilani argues it is more than a fit case for Pakistan to raise in the European Union and on the floor of the United Nations. India’s self-interest trumped when it acquiesced in — even if not directly supported — a massive disinformation campaign on its neighbour.

Imtiaz Gul is Executive Director at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

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