By Pallavi Jain and Amit Sarwal
In an exclusive interview with The Australia Today, Dr Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor at The University of Sydney, spoke about his recent India trip and challenged some of the claims made about him and his research in the Indian media.
More specifically Dr Babones talked about some media reports in India that seemed to insinuate he was a ‘foreign agent’ working for the Indian Government.
Dr Babones denied these laughable claims and added that both Mr Shekhar Gupta and Mr Rajdeep Sardesai made mistakes while commenting on him because they did not do sufficient research.
Watch Dr Babones’s Exclusive interview with The Australia Today here:
An article in the Indian news portal The Print initially called Dr Babones a ‘Foreign agent’. This claim was made based on Dr Babones having registered himself in Australia in the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) for three months in 2020 and under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the US for the same period.
Later Mr Shekhar Gupta, Editor in Chief of The Print, went on to make claims in his video segment called ‘Cut the Clutter’ that insinuated that Dr Babones is associated/worked with the Government of India.
Mr Gupta stated that Dr Babones made full disclosure to him that he had in the past registered as “somebody who works for a Government related organisation in India.”
We will come to the ‘Foreign Agent’ claim later but let’s address the latter issue first which appears to be a completely false, fabricated and misleading claim.
The FITS website in Australia mentions four categories under which you can register:
1- Foreign government,
2- Foreign government-related entity,
3- Foreign government-related individual or
4- Foreign political organisation.
Dr Babones was registered for less than three months in 2020 under the Foreign political organisation category. This is publicly listed information and you do not even need to be an investigative reporter to access such information.
Similarly, Dr Babones in the USA registered as an agent for a foreign organisation which is a corporation.
Hence, it raises serious questions as to why Mr Gupta made the claims that he made about Dr Babones being registered as “somebody who works for a Government related organisation in India” – when it would be very clear from publicly available information that that is simply not the case.
Now even a cursory reading of the Australian Foreign Transparency Influence Scheme website would make a reader aware that being registered under this scheme in no way implies that a person is working as a ‘foreign agent’ for a foreign government.
According to British English, the word ‘Foreign Agent’ generally means a spy for a foreign government. In fact, the word ‘foreign agent’ is not even mentioned on the FITS website.
Yet, The Print article misleadingly states:
“Australia-based sociologist Dr Salvatore Babones who said ‘India’s intellectual class is anti-India’…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, The Print has learnt.”
Two former Prime Ministers of Australia, Mr Tony Abbott and Mr Kevin Rudd, are currently registrants under the same scheme. While, Mr Malcolm Turnbull and Mr John Howard, also former Prime Ministers of Australia, had been registrants for a period of time like Dr Babones.
The website also mentions organisations like the BBC, Al Jazeera, Change.org, Arizona State University, and King’s College London as ‘Foreign Principals’.
Dr Babones explains in his exclusive interview why he registered under this scheme for three months in 2020 even though he was told by Australian officials that he didn’t have to!
What is the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme?
The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme according to its website commenced on 10 December 2018. 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.
It is again very clear that as far as Australia is concerned the word ‘foreign agent’ is not even used anywhere hence one wonders how this error was made of calling Dr Babones a ‘foreign agent’ with the “Australian Government” let alone making the false claim that he had registered as working with a Government related organisation in India.
FARA Act in America
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) website states that FARA which was enacted in 1938, requires certain agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.
Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.
The website clearly explains what is the meaning of an ‘agent’ of a foreign principal’ and what is a ‘foreign principal.’
From the above explanation once again it’s very clear that being registered here again in no way implies that you are an agent necessarily working for a foreign government. And Dr Babones had specified in his form that the ‘foreign principal’ in his case was a foreign corporation (Media-News outlet).
However, given the connotations that the word ‘foreign agent’ carries, the American Bar Association in 2021 recommended that FARA should be renamed and the term ‘agent’ be replaced.
The report titled FARA: ISSUES AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR REFORM states:
- “Finally and perhaps most importantly, the “agent” label unduly stigmatizes FARA registration because the word “agent” is regularly associated colloquially with covert government-sponsored espionage activities. This pejorative label brands all FARA registrants with this stigmatized association, even though the statute requires registration for all manner of work on behalf of all types of foreign interests, including innocuous and overt public-relations work for foreign tourism bureaus.”
- “Congress should replace the term “agent” everywhere it appears in the statute with another term that reflects the statute’s actual reach, avoids confusion with other laws, and reduces stigma for registrants. One such term that Congress should particularly consider is the word “representative.” Eliminating the term “agent” is a significant reform, since it is found in the very name of the statute, but changing the term “agent of a foreign principal” to “foreign representative” and renaming the statute as the “Foreign Representative Registration Act” would reduce the confusion, conflation, and stigmatization currently caused by the word “agent” – without any detrimental impact to the Department’s administration or enforcement of FARA”.
The question now really is whether Mr Gupta will apologise to Dr Babones for his ‘errors’ or provide concrete proof to the public for making the claims that he has made in his video.
Watch: Dr Babones in his Exclusive interview with The Australia Today also explains what Mr Gupta got wrong when he was trying to counter Prof Babones’s research which shows that so-called international democracy rankings (which have downgraded India’s rankings) are flawed.