From India to Russia, no country for bad news

Shougat Dasgupta

 

Critics of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine could soon have their property confiscated, if Russian legislators get their way. A bill has been submitted to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to allow authorities to exact revenge on those who spread “misinformation” (read: facts) about the war. And revenge is the obvious, if not only, motive. Vyacheslav Volodin, the parliament chair and a confidante of President Vladimir Putin, said it was “necessary” for the Kremlin to be able to “punish scoundrels, including cultural figures, who support Nazis, pour dirt on our country, soldiers and officers.” 

The Kremlin appears to believe that its existing powers to jail critics for years, classifying them as terrorists and foreign agents, are not repressive enough. It needs more excuses to throw people in prison, like former journalist and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2023 for supposedly spreading misinformation about the Russian military. In December, a popular Russian-Georgian novelist, known by his pen name Boris Akunin, was added to the register of “terrorists and extremists” and is now being investigated for allegedly spreading fake information about the Russian army. Akunin, who doesn’t hold back his disdain, most recently called Putin a “psychologically deranged dictator.” He responded to being added to the register by dismissing the charge succinctly on Facebook: “Terrorists declared me a terrorist,” he wrote from his home in London.

But Akunin, by being sentenced in absentia, is one of the luckier ones. Writers, dissidents and anti-war activists in Russia have been beaten and sentenced in show trials to several years of imprisonment. In March, Russia holds its presidential election. Putin will likely now have another legal means, alongside new media restrictions, to clamp down on any kind of opposition.

The dozens of other countries going to the polls this year have to be vigilant to prevent organized interference from, among others, Beijing and Moscow. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that it had “uncovered a covert campaign orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manipulate Taiwan’s recent election through AI-Generated Disinformation.” On January 13, Taiwan re-elected the candidate of the governing Democratic Progressive Party despite warnings from China that it would exacerbate conflict. According to the institute’s report, inauthentic social media accounts linked to the Chinese authorities used artificial intelligence to spread false stories that the presidential candidate was “America’s pet” and had signed under-the-table agreements to buy billions of dollars worth of arms from Washington. 

Although Chinese efforts to exert influence in Taiwan’s vote amounted to little, it hasn’t stopped them from spreading a similar misinformation campaign in India, where elections are expected to be held between April and May. In Meta’s third quarter “Adversarial Threat Report” released in November, three separate “covert influence” operations were found to have violated inauthentic behavior policies. Two originated in China, and the other one in Russia.

In Berlin, the local government has decided to scrap a controversial antisemitism clause it inserted into applications for arts funding. The language would have required applicants to commit to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been used by some institutions to stifle criticism of Israeli policy, especially as it relates to the Palestinian people. Some 6,000 artists had signed a petition decrying what it described as the “political instrumentalization of antisemitism clauses.” 

In November, we discussed in this newsletter how the search committee tasked with hiring an art director for Documenta, arguably Germany’s biggest, most important festival of contemporary art, had resigned en masse, torn apart by accusations of antisemitism leveled at a committee member, the Indian art critic Ranjit Hoskote. He had signed an open letter in 2019 describing Zionism as a “racist ideology calling for a settler-colonial, apartheid state where non-Jews have unequal rights.” The remaining members of the committee resigned because, they said, they no longer thought there was “space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas.” In Germany, at least 40 projects have reportedly been canceled in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attacks in Israel. In October, the famous Frankfurt book fair refused to host a ceremony intended to honor the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, as if public recognition of her work was a comment on the war between Israel and Hamas. To the Berlin government’s credit though, it paid heed to what the artists described as their rejection of “political interference in the function, methods and freedom of cultural production.”

In Modi’s India, report bad news at your peril

On January 26, India celebrated its 75th Republic Day, the date its constitution came into effect, a couple of years after it achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1947. This year, French President Emmanuel Macron was the guest of honor. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, led by Amit Shah — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest ally — decided to commemorate Macron’s visit by threatening a French journalist with expulsion. The reason, ministry sources claimed, was “malicious” reporting that apparently helped create a “negative perception” of India. Anecdotally, I know of other Western journalists, one working for a well-known international broadcaster, who have had their applications to renew their journalism visas and permits denied. In this case, the journalist Vanessa Dougnac has been living in India for 22 years. She is married to an Indian citizen and has an Overseas Citizen of India card. In India, where dual citizenship is not allowed, the OCI card recognizes people of Indian origin as well as those with other ties to the country without conferring full citizenship rights; OCIs, for instance, cannot vote. 

It is this card that the ministry is threatening to revoke, effectively expelling Dougnac from the country altogether. She has been given two weeks to respond to the allegations. “I love India,” Dougnac said in a statement after news of the ministry’s allegations broke. “India is my home, a country which I deeply love and respect, and I have never engaged in any acts that are in any manner prejudicial to Indian interests as is being alleged.” The authorities have not cited particular articles or provided details about how Dougnac’s work, published in French publications, could have “provoked disorder” or “disturbed the peace.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs, under Shah’s watch, has revoked Overseas Citizen of India cards before. Writing for Time magazine in May 2019, Aatish Taseer — son of a prominent Indian columnist and a Pakistani politician who was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011 for criticizing his country’s blasphemy law — described the “advent of Modi” as “at once an inevitability and a calamity for India.” The magazine’s cover, just as India was preparing to reelect Modi for a second term, dubbed the prime minister as the “divider-in-chief.” By September, Taseer — a U.K. citizen at the time (he is now also a U.S. citizen) — was informed by the government that it intended to revoke his OCI card. And by November, despite Taseer contesting the government’s claims, he found himself exiled from the country where his mother and grandmother live and where he was raised. He says he cannot even visit as a tourist.

Dougnac’s case is less high profile than Taseer’s but she too appears to be a victim of bullying by the Indian government. The capricious nature of the process, with opaque charges and little consistency, is at odds with India’s self-image as, in Modi’s words, “the mother of democracy.” Unsurprisingly, India is currently ranked a lowly 161 out of 180 countries assessed in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index. 
And the World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks Report this month, published to coincide with its annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, ranked misinformation and disinformation as the biggest threat to India in 2024 (an election year), bigger even than infectious diseases and wealth inequality. It is in keeping with a country where local and international journalists are expected to toe the government’s line of India’s unstoppable rise to global prominence — or suffer its wrath.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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