How Indian media outlets used ED’s bogus claims to demonise citizenship law protests

Swarajya, Zee News, India TV legitimised the agency’s dubious allegation that Kapil Sibal and Indira Jaising were paid by the Popular Front of India to fan the protests.

ByAyush Tiwari
How Indian media outlets used ED’s bogus claims to demonise citizenship law protests
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The last time Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary shared documents purportedly from the Enforcement Directorate, his insinuations fell flat. In April 2019, Chaudhary tweeted a screenshot of a chargesheet filed by the ED – India’s top law enforcement agency for financial crimes – in the AgustaWestland Chopper scam. It alleged that journalists Manu Pubby and Shekhar Gupta, who had led the investigation into the scam at the Indian Express, had “toned down” their coverage after a public relations official from AgustaWestland contacted them.

Gupta and Pubby denied the allegations, and nothing came of the ED’s accusations. Newslaundry explained at the time why the agency’s charges were unintelligent and sloppy.

On Monday, Chaudhary took to Twitter to allege that ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were funded by the Popular Front of India, an Islamist group.

His news outlet, Zee News, went a step further. It carried an article with the headline “Congress leader Kapil Sibal received money from PFI for anti-CAA protests, say sources”. It began, “Congress leader Kapil Sibal received money from radical Islamist outfit Popular Front of India for anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, sources told Zee News.”

The article went on to allege that lawyers Indira Jaising and Dushyant Dave, and one Abdul Samad were among those who “are said to have received the funds”. “The source said senior Congress leader Sibal received 77 lakh while Jaising received 4 lakh.”

A screenshot of the Zee News report, which was later taken down

A screenshot of the Zee News report, which was later taken down

The article was taken down on the same day, not surprisingly given its egregious shortcomings. To begin with, it was entirely based on “sources”. It did not give the necessary information about who these sources were. This raises questions. Are the readers expected to simply believe the claims of any “source”? Reporting entails providing clarity about the background of the sources. This article didn’t. Moreover, it carried documents that had no institutional markers, and were not signed by an official entity.

Such stories are unreliable and easy to manufacture. One might as well carry a report titled “Sudhir Chaudhary is an extortionist who harasses a businessman for money”, attribute the claim to anonymous “sources”, jot it down on an MS Word document and tweet it out. Reasonable folks would not buy it.

It would be believable, however, if a news outlet reported it after due diligence, like this 2012 article in the Times of India. It said Chaudhary and his then colleague had been arrested for extortion. It reported that the investigation was conducted by the Delhi police’s interstate cell and carried necessary details and quotes from senior police officials. It even included the accused’s version of the story, something the Zee News report on PFI did not.

It’s notable that Hindu nationalist news outlet Swarajya also carried an article based on the Zee News report. This article does not pass the due diligence test.

On January 25, India TV published a report on the PFI and its supposed funding. The rhetoric was high in this one, but the claims again were hollow. “As per latest investigations, shocking new revelations have come out. According to sources, the Popular Front of India is behind the violence, arson, sabotage, dharna. The investigation has revealed that about Rs 120 crore has been spent to carry out the riot.”

Which sources? Whose investigation? The article does not specify the nature or the number of the “sources”. It does not even tell us who is conducting the investigation -- is it the Uttar Pradesh police, ED, Sherlock Holmes, or Amit Malviya?

Swarajya regurgitated this India TV report as well. Did its empty claims bother them? You can take a guess.

Now, let’s glance at further developments in this case. We now know that the ED is behind these “investigations”. An “ED source” told IANS that they’ve identified 73 bank accounts while they were keeping tabs on the PFI. These are the claims:

Claim 1: Following the money trail of the funding, ED came to know about the Rehab Foundation of India, which has given over Rs 120 crore for the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests.

Claim 2: Bank accounts with huge transactions were detected in the past two months. The amounts were withdrawn on the same day or within two to three days, leaving only a minimal amount in the accounts.

Claim 3: Sibal received Rs 77 lakh, Jaising Rs 4 lakh, Dave Rs 11 lakh, and Abdul Samad Rs 3.10 lakh in their respective bank accounts.

The ED has not produced any evidence to back any of these allegations. This is not surprising. The agency does not have a track record of reliability, as the Newslaundry report on its AgustaWestland chargesheet last year lays out. It is an agency that is known to harass political opponents, a reputation that its own chief acknowledged a couple of years ago was deserved. The ED’s resolve to bring perpetrators to justice can be gauged from the fact that it secured merely three convictions between 2002 and 2017. Between 2017 and 2019, this rose to nine.

With regard to claim 3, it is being used by outlets such as Swarajya, Zee News India TV, and even Times Now, to link Sibal, Jaising and Dave to the anti-CAA protests. This claim is untrue; the transactions in question actually date from 2017 and 2018 when Sibal, Jaising and Dave were fighting the Hadiya-Shaffin marriage case on behalf of the PFI. Sibal clarified this in a statement, and so did Jaising and Dave.

These facts are in the public domain since March 2018. That the “ED source” did not reveal this to the media outlets reflects poorly on the investigative agency. In a comic twist, it turned out that Swarajya was aware of this, since Swarajya Staff had reported on it in 2018. This only demonstrates that the Hindu nationalist outlet reverses Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by malice.

As this information on the Hadiya-Shaffin case emerged, Zee News took down its article on Sibal and other lawyers on January 27, replacing it with a report on the Hadiya-Shaffin case. It did not issue any clarification or correction. India TV and Swarajya haven’t done so either.

Earlier this month, the Uttar Pradesh Police had claimed that the PFI was “actively involved” in the violence during the anti-CAA protests in the state. But if the ED is a fallow grassland of credibility, the UP police is a dreary desert. In December 2019, Newslaundry reported that the state police were making brazenly false claims about the anti-CAA violence in Bijnor. The police’s allegations did not find any takers in the judiciary either, as the Indian Express reported.

Writing in the Wire earlier this month, retired IPS officer NC Asthana dissected the UP police’s allegations against the PFI. He argued that they were an attempt to “divert people’s attention from the fundamental issues raised by the anti-CAA protests by raising the bogey of an anti-national/communal organisation being the source of all evil”.

Asthana’s argument also stretches to Swarajya, Zee News and India TV. They do not demand accountability from the state, but demonise those who do. In this, the power dynamics of Indian politics is in their favour, and so is its economics: they drive traffic to their websites by shouting scandal, and generate revenue out of misinformation. (This is why news consumers should be wary of media that does not serve them, but the advertisers. Pay to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry.)

Newslaundry tried to get in touch with Chaudhary and India TV editor-in-chief Rajat Sharma. Neither responded to our requests for comment.

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