Leaders in India’s ruling party are sharing articles praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to the country’s devastating COVID-19 crisis.
But the catch is they are from obscure websites with names eerily similar to mainstream news outlets in the UK and Australia, specifically The Guardian and The Australian. Both international publications (and many others) have run coverage critical of Modi’s response to the pandemic.
Amit Malviya, who heads the ruling party’s Information and Technology department, tweeted an article partially headlined “PM Modi has been working hard” by a site called The Daily Guardian to his half a million followers on May 11.
Some Twitter users accused the ruling party of creating the site, but it is actually owned by an Indian entrepreneur who also has a TV network that runs several news channels.
The Twitter handle for The Daily Guardian tweets mostly in all caps and boldly claims that it is the “finest daily newspaper of the country,” although it appears to have recently launched. The independent Indian news site The Wire says The Daily Guardian doesn’t seem to have a print edition, but it does feature an e-paper on its website.
Sudesh Verma, the author of the article that praised the government’s COVID-19 response, is a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has previously written a book called “Narendra Modi: The Game Changer.”
Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Indian fact-checking site Alt News, told VICE World News that The Daily Guardian is a platform being used as a “government-friendly” publication to imply that “Modi is not at fault” for the crisis.
Another article making the rounds was from similarly obscure The Australia Today. The site’s latest piece claims, “Besides COVID-19, India is also fighting with vulture journalists, who are spreading more panic and despair than pandemic.”
After The Australian published an article titled, “Modi leads India into a viral apocalypse,” India’s ambassador in Canberra wrote a letter to the publication and said the article was “completely baseless, malicious and slanderous.” The Australia Today soon published an article titled, “Indian community demands apology from Australian newspaper for calling India ‘hell’.”
“The purpose of both websites is different,” Sinha explained. “The Australia Today is clearly managed by Indian origin people but the website is made to look like it is an international organisation.”
The site took James Oaten, an Australian journalist, to task on Twitter after he said that the news site wasn’t Australian.
Indian analyst and professor Ashok Swain explained the government is under tremendous pressure and willing to go to any length for “brand management and image shaping.”
Modi’s administration even arranged an image building workshop for 300 of its top officials, as they deal with close to a million COVID-19 cases every three days, oxygen shortages, overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums.
“The government continues to peddle half-truth that foreign media is hyping the crisis. However, when the situation is so grave and social media is showing hundreds of people dying without oxygen and dozens of dead bodies floating in the rivers, the Indian media has no other option but to report those incidents,” he said.
“Even this basic reporting has angered the Modi regime.”
Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center said the ruling BJP “will go to any length to try to project positivity about its leaders-even during a raging pandemic, and even if it entails using bizarre tactics.”
“There is a perfect storm at play here. You have a government that is highly sensitive to criticism from abroad, that is fixated on its image, and that is facing the most serious political crisis during its seven years in power. The result is predictable: An all-out, all-hands-on-deck effort to push back against negative foreign media coverage,” Kugelman told VICE World News.
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