By Prateek Goyal

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.

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.”…

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