How a shady portal with bogus reporters triggered false news on the BJP

The Congress faces an FIR for tweeting a Dainik Jagran report. Cops say it’s fake news; focus turns to portal that first wrote about the incident.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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Fake news items about a BJP leader’s violent encounter with sex workers have sent the party into a tizzy in Madhya Pradesh. The party has filed an FIR against the Congress for promoting ill will against the BJP by amplifying the articles. And as more details emerge, the focus has now turned to the ostensible origin of this disinformation: a news website with fake personae as reporters.

IndyaTV News is run by Flynn Remedios, who is also the managing editor of IndiaScoops and the editor of IndiaScribes – portals that have been found peddling fake news in the past. Its most recently controversial journalism features a series of unsubstantiated gossip items about a politician from Madhya Pradesh who was assaulted by sex workers over his refusal to pay them for their services in a Goa hotel. 

In three pieces published on March 7, 10 and 11, the website made titillating claims with graphic details of the rumoured encounter. However, when the story was picked up by a few mainstream outlets, including Dainik Jagran, disclaimer was added to the items, declaring that they were based on “hearsay”. This was besides the editor’s note added hours after publication of these articles, pointing out that the website was withholding the names of the people involved as there was no official FIR or statements from the women and the hotel. 

This came as a controversy was triggered when Dainik Jagran and ETV Bharat alleged that this politician was a BJP leader, through reports attributed to unnamed sources on March 10. The Congress had shared the Dainik Jagran report the same day on Twitter, leaving the BJP red-faced, and compelling the party’s Bhopal media cell head Rajendra Gupta to file a complaint with the Bhopal crime branch against the opposition party.

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However, as the Bhopal police contacted their counterparts in Goa, the latter confirmed that no such incident had taken place. An FIR has been filed against the Madhya Pradesh Congress under IPC Section 505(2) for alleged promotion of ill will.

Goa SP Nidhin Valsan told Newslaundry, “We have done a detailed  investigation and nothing of such sort has happened. The entire plot was fake. We are now trying to focus on people who were involved in spreading this fake news.”

Police said they are also investigating the role of IndyaTV News.

It was during this police probe that the website added a disclaimer and put out a fresh article stating that there was no evidence that the incident even took place. “We are unable to confirm which political party the above-mentioned politician belongs to. It is only alleged that the ‘customer’ was a politician from MP…the hotel, when contacted, denied the incident above-mentioned even took place. Apparently, it was a private matter, which was settled among the people concerned, after a small misunderstanding,” read the disclaimer. 

“This news is based on hearsay – inputs given by a former hotel employee and we are unable to verify its authenticity and veracity….. After due diligence, we have come to the conclusion that the claims mentioned above are only hearsay and cannot be verified or confirmed and hence no individual or organisation should be blamed, held responsible or accused in any way due to the lack of evidence to prove otherwise.”

Meanwhile, the Congress has said that it’s “unbelievable” that a case has been filed against the party for merely sharing an article “published in newspapers”. “We are unable to understand why they have filed a FIR against us. We just tweeted the article which was published in newspapers with a caption and nothing else. It’s unbelievable that they filed an FIR just for tweeting an article,” said Abhinav Baraolia, spokesperson of the Congress media cell.

Asked why the FIR was not against media outlets, BJP’s Rajendra Gupta said, “Newspapers  published the news but it was aggravated by Congress. Their tweet was circulating everywhere. As of now, we have not decided to file a complaint against the newspapers.”

‘We said article wasn’t verifiable’

The portal’s articles have been published with bylines such as Manu D’lima, Prasad Dev Lotlikar, Pradeep Naik, Shyam Prasad Ramkumar Tiwari, Ranjeet Singh, Richmond Joshua, Sane Satish, Pralhad Gaude, and Anita Shenoy. However, based on preliminary research and conversations with the journalistic circles in Maharashtra and Goa, Newslaundry has found that none of these are real reporters.

Rajtilak Naik, president of the Goa Union of Journalists, said, “I have not heard of any such names in the journalism circle of Goa.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior reporter with a Marathi daily said, “It’s not the first time that it has reported fake news. In fact, it cultivates content which is sensational and without facts. This whole episode about a politician from Madhya Pradesh being attacked by sex workers is concocted.”

Another senior journalist said, “It’s a very shady website and was  floating baseless stories during election time too. Nobody believes whatever it publishes because most of the content is fictional.” 

The IndyaTV News website says that “while most international and national news articles and news reports are sourced from news agencies like PTI, UNI, IANS, ANI and Reuters, our team of in-house reporters focuses on exclusive feature stories. Our in-house team is headed by journalists with wide experience in covering beats like crime, politics, tech and fashion and entertainment with nearly 20 years of journalistic time. Totally, our in-house team, which consists of five senior journalists, has a collective experience of 130 journalism years to their credit.”

Speaking to Newslaundry, IndyaTV News editor Flynn Remedios said that as a journalist, “we take things on good faith and run the story”. “I am on various WhatsApp groups in Goa and that is how you get  information these days. Somebody called me up stating that  he is a former employee of a hotel and a major fight has happened in the hotel and narrated to me the whole incident which was published by us…I asked that person if he could be quoted in the story and to share pictures, but he denied. As a journalist we take things on good faith and run the story. We ran a short story and later added a disclaimer as there were hundreds of requests to mention the name of the hotel, politicians etc.” 

“Amusing bits of information, buzz on social media clearly indicate that it was gossip or hearsay. The story was well received and we got quite a few views but nowhere did we hint at any political party or politician. Eventually we tried to verify but were not able to find out…either the whole thing was covered up by the people concerned or such an incident might have never taken place. Or maybe it was a fight between a group of friends…we ran the unverified story to expose the flesh trade angle and how young girls are conned.”

Asked why he published unverified news, Remedios said “we clearly said that the article was not verifiable”. “Unfortunately, some newspaper in Madhya Pradesh mentioned the BJP and everything went berserk.”

Asked whether the women mentioned in the story spoke to his outlet, Remedios said, “That was via…they spoke indirectly through a friend. One of the women who spoke to us also said that she didn’t know whether the person was a politician or an influential guy. She was told that she is going to meet a producer who will sign her for a film and give her a signing amount of Rs 1 lakh…and for him she has to do certain things.”

Asked about the “reporters” who wrote these pieces alleging the assault, Remedios said, “It’s not possible to talk to them…they are scared and we have summons from Goa crime branch and I have taken all the onus on me. This would have never got so much attention if Madhya Pradesh media had not twisted the facts…I don’t see that I have done anything wrong. Whatever mischief has happened is in Madhya Pradesh.” 

A senior Goa Congress leader claimed that party workers in the state stopped Remedios’s access to their office a few years ago. “He used to visit the office prior to 2019 and used to claim that he was a Congressman…but gradually we realised that he has a habit of cooking up stories. He used to write in order to sensationalise things.”

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