New Delhi: Australia-based sociologist Dr Salvatore Babones who said “India’s intellectual class is anti-India”, during a discussion at the India Today Conclave in Mumbai Saturday, is registered as a “foreign agent” with the US Department of Justice and the Australian government, for working with an Indian media company based in Uttar Pradesh, ThePrint has learnt.
Speaking to ThePrint, Babones confirmed that he “briefly worked” with a company called Democracy News Live, based in Noida, in 2020, after signing a contract with them. He was paid an amount of 4,000 US dollars for the same, he said.
“I had a small consulting assignment with this company for a period of less than six months. They approached me asking for help to reach out to the audience in the west. They wanted to know how to frame articles for the Western media so that their message reaches a broader audience, and I advised them on that,” Babones told ThePrint.
Asked if he had disclosed this association to India Today, he said, “No. I am not required to do that. I am no longer associated with that company, I had advised them only for a brief period.”
In the US, any individual carrying out the interest of a foreign country, or engaged in advocacy of a foreign government, organisations or person, has to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 .
The FARA Unit of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section (CES) of the National Security Division (NSD) is responsible for the administration and enforcement of FARA and heavy penalties are imposed on violators.
Similarly, in Australia, this disclosure has to be made under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS). The purpose of the scheme is to provide the public with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and politics.
Asked if Democracy News Live is an Indian government-linked entity, owing to which he made this registration, Babones said that he does not know their status.
According to the Democracy News Live website, the company works on issues using journalism as an instrument to create awareness and influence policymakers.
The website also mentions Rohit Gandhi, as the founder and editor-in-chief of the company and adds that he has previously worked with CNN and the Canadian Broadcasting Organisation.
Babones, a US citizen, works as an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney and writes on public policy. His research focuses on the political economy of the Indo-Pacific region and he has authored several books on the same.
He made the comment about India’s intellectuals being “anti-India” during a discussion with senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, on whether India’s democracy is in recession and India is an elected autocracy or heading towards fascism. The discussion started with Sardesai quoting press freedom rankings of several countries, including India, by international think tanks and asking how valid these rankings were. He further raised a question on whether Indian democracy has been exposed by these ranking or was it being unfairly demonised?
India’s ranking in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index has fallen to 150 among 180 countries, according to the latest report released by the global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The country was ranked 142 the previous year.
‘Got myself registered for full disclosure’
Babones told ThePrint that he got himself registered under FARA and FITS to ensure full disclosure because he wanted to be “better safe than sorry”.
He cited the example of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who he said had been investigated under FITS for speaking at the Australian CPAC meeting, even though CPAC is clearly not a US government entity. He said he did not want “similar risks”.
“Since this was a contract with a foreign entity and in Australia if you do work for a foreign client that seeks to influence Australian media and if the foreign client is a government-linked entity, it is mandatory to register yourself and make these disclosures. Else, there are severe penalties,” he said.
Babones added that when he went to register himself, the authorities told him that he was not required to do it for this consultation job, but he did it anyway to avoid penalties later.
“In both countries there had been a spate of investigations of people who had not registered and — not having a lawyer — I thought it is better (to be) safe than sorry. Since there is no penalty for registering unnecessarily, I went ahead and did it,” he claimed.
He added, “When I went to register, I was asked about my role with the company. When I disclosed that, I was told that the registration is not required, but I got it done anyway. Since I was helping a foreign company in India, I felt this disclosure was important.”
According to Babones this was the only consulting assignment he had taken in his entire career.
‘Both anti-India and anti-Modi’
Talking about international organisations carrying out surveys to reach these world rankings, Babones had said at Saturday’s conclave that “the organisations evaluate democracy in over 150 countries. Most of the people involved have no interest in India. The problem is that all these rankings are based on surveys. So, all have the same methodology. They survey intellectuals, journalists, and academics based in the country they are studying or students in the country from outside. It is these (survey) reports that are biased.”
He had added: “Fundamentally, the biases don’t creep in because the organisations are anti-India. They creep in because, and forgive me, India’s intellectual class is anti-India, as a class and not as individuals.”
When asked if he means the intellectual class is anti-India or anti-Mr Modi, Babones had said, “There is a bit of both”.
He had added: “They are certainly anti-BJP and anti-Modi as a class and not as individuals. But imagine that in a couple years you get a UPA government. Will they tear down the Ram Mandir? Will they reverse the very policies that are being criticised in these rankings? Will they get rid of the UAPA (The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act)? So, the basis on which the criticisms are made, those bases will probably remain in place. If they do, then the same criticisms will apply to them.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)