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“People’s Media” Network, but Pro-Russia and Pro-China

Tech mogul Neville Singham’s vast dark money network has fueled BreakThrough News and a raft of other online outlets pushing Moscow and Beijing’s favorite narratives.

Newspapers B&W, by NS Newsflash (CC BY 2.0 license)

A slick online media machine has recruited a slew of characters from Russian state-affiliated outlets—and joined a sprawling multinational network of pro-Moscow, pro-Beijing content creators backed by a U.S. businessman reportedly probed in India for ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Since it started posting to Instagram and Youtube in early 2020, nearly all BreakThrough News’ camera-facing personalities have been veterans of Kremlin-backed outfits: former Radio Sputnik host Eugene Puryear; pundit Rania Khalek of video generator ‘In the Now;’ Kei PritskerAbby Martin, and Brian Becker of defunct propaganda organ RT America. BreakThrough’s earliest productions lambasted America’s presidential system and persistent racial inequality, and attacked the American and Brazilian responses to the COVID-19 outbreak while praising policies in China.

But beginning in January 2022, amid the build-up to Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, the channel began sharing videos with titles like “Risking World War III with Russia: Why?” and “​​If NATO Goes to War, U.S. & European Soldiers Will Be Called On to Kill & Die.” More recent clips have carried such headlines as “Leaked Pentagon Docs Show US Elites Want Never-Ending Ukraine War” and “G7 Sends F-16 Jets to Ukraine: Flirting with Disaster, Direct War on Russia.”

These themes are familiar to observers of a particular fringe of the Western political spectrum, where the U.S.’s domestic and international abuses have kindled sympathy for hostile autocracies—and have even tempted a few to accept paychecks and platforms from their state media.

“It’s people who came of political age during the Bush years, and for God knows how many reasons, were disgusted with American foreign policy, and found bedfellows among authoritarian regimes that were also critical of the United States,” says Casey Michel, who heads the Combating Kleptocracy Program at the Human Rights Foundation. “Whether they believe all these things fully, or they are just mercenaries, I can’t say.”

Neither BreakThrough News nor its hosts responded to calls or emails from The Daily Beast.

But however typical BreakThrough’s characters and proclivities might be, the lavishly funded network behind it awed Michel and the other experts The Daily Beast consulted. Unlike the stations from which its anchors hail, BreakThrough is not officially affiliated with any foreign power—rather, it’s part of the “International People’s Media Network”: a coalition of eight outlets targeting not just the U.S. but Latin America, India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. BreakThrough and its seven associate channels claim to be “a network of independent media projects from across the globe that collaborate, working collectively to uplift people’s voices and stories.”

But even the International People’s Media Network’s webpage makes it clear its members all work in conjunction with the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Massachusetts-based think tank whose founder, controversial academic Dr. Vijay Prashad, is both a vociferous defender of China’s repressive policies toward its Uighur minority and a recurring guest on BreakThrough and its international siblings. All Network members share the same preoccupations, and even some of the same personnel—all unanimously depicting the U.S. as oppressive and imperialistic, China as admirable and benevolent, and Russia as blameless for its invasion of Ukraine.

And all the International People’s Media Network’s affiliates, including Tricontinental, appear to drink from the same torrent of dark money pouring out of the bank accounts and nonprofits of tech mogul Neville “Roy” Singham. Efforts to reach Singham for this piece, including through his partner Jodie Evans of the protest group Code Pink, proved fruitless.

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2022 report by the New Lines Institute for Policy and Strategy outlined how Singham sold his multibillion-dollar software company Thoughtworks five years prior and had since pumped money into a labyrinth of nonprofit organizations—Tricontinental among them. Prashad, for his part, has openly acknowledged Singham as the source of his group’s endowment, which has climbed to more than $14 million, mostly funneled through Goldman Sachs’ anonymized philanthropy fund. The financial institution declined to comment on its relationship with Singham, but insisted it abides by all relevant regulations.

On Twitter, Prashad marveled at his fortune of finding a benefactor with such stupendous wealth and such hardened leftist convictions.

“​​A Marxist with a massive software company! He sold that company a few years ago and decided to give away all the money toward political education for a new generation of radicals,” wrote Prashad, the boarding school-reared nephew of Indian Communist Party politician Brinda Karat.

The scholar and his organization did not respond to repeated outreach by The Daily Beast. The very name Tricontinental hints at ambitions of global reach, argued Cuban-American historian Andres Pertierra. In 1966, Havana hosted delegations from Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the Tricontinental Conference, an effort to unite anti-colonial and anti-U.S. movements from across the planet. The event became the seed of a communications project that lasted more than half a century.

“The Tricontinental Project was a multimedia empir​​e funded by the Cuban state that varied from its flagship publication Tricontinental Magazine to radio programs and the arts,” recalled Pertierra, who hosts ‘Orígenes,’ a podcast on the island’s history. “The original Tricontinental was Cuba’s attempt to leverage its symbolic importance on the global stage into meaningful political leadership of the Third World.”

In 2021, Indian newspapers reported that the country’s Enforcement Directorate were investigating Singham in an inquiry into a potential money-laundering scheme involving Tricontinental, the website Newsclick, and Chinese authorities. Several outlets cited sources from the agency who linked the American magnate to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda arm. At the time, the raids and interrogations New Delhi conducted on Newsclick attracted considerable criticism from human rights and press advocacy organizations.

But until now no publication has revealed the scale of Singham’s global media apparatus.

Filings submitted to the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State Charities Bureau show BreakThrough News is a nonprofit that has drawn the bulk of its funding from the Justice and Education Fund, an entity both the New Lines Institute and Indian outlets highlighted as funded by Singham.

These same documents show that the Justice and Education Fund also sends millions of dollars each year to Newsclick—and that it operates out of the same Harlem UPS Store box as Newsclick’s sister website, Peoples Dispatch. Peoples Dispatch is another member of the International People’s Media Network, and one of the earliest videos BreakThrough posted to its Instagram page was a Peoples Dispatch/Newsclick production titled "ruling class collusion to crush Sander’s insurgency [sic].”

Further, Tricontinental and the Justice and Education Fund are so entwined that a template grant letter agreement the Fund submitted to the IRS in its application for tax-exempt status bears Tricontinental’s name in the signature field. The Fund’s attorney did not respond to questions about this apparent slip, or to queries about the group’s leadership and its relationship with Singham or its partner organizations.

BreakThrough’s filings, meanwhile, show it operates out of the People’s Forum in Manhattan, another organization that has acknowledged receiving dark money donations from Singham—whom the group praised on Twitter as “a Marxist comrade who sold his company & donated most of his wealth to nonprofits that focus on political education, culture & internationalism.” To date, Singham-linked groups have donated almost $20 million to the People’s Forum.

Sitting on the People’s Forum’s board is Claudia De La Cruz, who pulls triple duty as BreakThrough’s secretary and as a “co-coordinator/educator” for the Justice and Education Fund. An auditor’s report filed in New York shows that more of Singham’s money trickled down to BreakThrough from the Forum in the form of $80,575 in donated rent in 2021, the most recent year for which filings are available.

But when The Daily Beast visited the People’s Forum address, it found a bookstore hawking tomes by Prashad and titles from his Leftword imprint, as well as a coffee shop and an event space—but no evidence of a studio. What’s more, none of BreakThrough’s hosts appear among the staff listed in the outlet’s filings. Rather, the underlying nonprofit’s leadership consists of figures like De La Cruz who donate an hour a week to the organization, and who like De La Cruz are affiliated with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a small far-left sect that does not appear to receive substantial donations from Singham or from anybody else. The PSL does, however, appear as an allied group to the International People’s Media Network on its webpage. Puryear and Becker, two of the BreakThrough anchors, are co-founders of the party.

The auditor’s report further shows that BreakThrough received half-a-million dollars in donated payroll since its founding. The exact source of these funds is not clear.

Across the International People’s Media Network, a similar pattern of overlapping personnel —and links to Singham—emerges. For instance, the chair of the Justice and Education Forum in 2019 was Tings Chak, a Beijing-based “researcher” and art director for Tricontinental. Chak is a regular guest on BreakThrough, where she effuses over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies on everything from COVID-19 to tech regulation to international relations. She did not respond to repeated queries at the email address listed on her website.

Chak is also the co-founder, along with another China-based Tricontinental researcher, of International People’s Media Network member Dongsheng News, which produces videos in multiple languages promoting China’s diplomatic and scientific successes. Yet another Tricontinental researcher hosts Dongsheng’s podcast ‘The Crane,’ which promotes China as a natural and generous partner for developing African nations.

Similarly, two additional International People’s Media Network members, Brasil de Fato and ARGMedios—covering Brazil and Argentina, respectively—are affiliates of the Sao Paulo-based Centro Popular de Midias, which has received funding from yet another Singham-tied nonprofit. Tricontinental’s website reveals that the communications director in the think-tank’s Brazil office served as associate editor of Brasil de Fato, and provided “coordination and political guidance” to the Centro Popular. Both Brasil de Fato and ARGMedios have jointly produced and posted content with Tricontinental, BreakThrough, Peoples Dispatch, and other International People’s Media Network members. None of the outlets replied to questions from The Daily Beast.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

BreakThrough News, Dongsheng, Brasil de Fato, and ARGMedios all boast relatively high production values and strong social media presence. Not so of two other International People’s Media Network affiliates, the Arabic-language Madaar—which largely publishes translated reports from Tricontinental, often by Prashad himself—and Ghana-based Pan African Television, which runs a YouTube channel that regularly shares Peoples Dispatch-branded videos, many featuring BreakThrough’s Puryear and Khalek, along with a show called China Now. Madaar in particular has not posted new material in months, and a request for comment The Daily Beast sent to an email address listed on its website immediately bounced back.

What BreakThrough’s international partners have in common are their targets—what Dr. Ho-fung Hung of John Hopkins University called the “heavyweights in the Global South,” a scholarly term for the developing world. Every country in which the International People’s Media Network has established a foothold is a country crucial to Beijing’s geopolitical goals.

"It coincides with Beijing's interest in enlarging its following in the Global South,” argued Hung, an expert on political economy. "It is completely consistent with Xi Jinping's rhetoric about a new world order, and the end of US dominance.”

The vodka-stained résumés of BreakThrough’s anchors notwithstanding, the Singham network is most closely tied to China. The New Lines Institute report noted that the anti-capitalist entrepreneur had advised Chinese tech behemoth Huawei, while his beneficiary Prashad serves as a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. Prashad has also repeatedly lauded the mass internment and re-education camps in which China has imprisoned well over a million Uighurs as a “people’s project” to dismantle archaic cultural practices.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

What’s more, Prashad and representatives from BreakThrough, Peoples Dispatch, Dongsheng, Brasil de Fato, Madaar, ARGMedios, and Pan African Television attended a summit in Shanghai earlier this month that East China Normal University convened for the inauguration of its new International Communication Research Institute. Addressing a roomful of Chinese, Russia, Iranian, and Venezuelan state media organizations, the Singham acolytes revisited a common theme: the necessity of a “progressive media” complex that can challenge the predominance of U.S., Japanese, and European outlets.

It is unclear who covered the Network affiliates' travel costs for the conference, or whether Prashad or Chak—who addressed the gathering—received any payment or honorarium, since none responded to questions on the subject.

But perhaps most revealing is the fate of the last, lost member of the International People’s Media Network, New Frame. Based in South Africa, another area of vital Chinese interest, this Singham-backed outlet shuttered in 2022, just four years after its launch. Like its peers, the site published columns by Prashad and collaborated on projects with other Network organizations. But a report by the AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism linked New Frame’s abrupt and unexpected closure to Singham’s efforts to enforce a pro-China editorial line.

Even Singham’s funding of a “Real Path to Peace in Ukraine” event last fall, as reported by Intelligence Online—an event that featured figures from BreakThrough News and his assorted nonprofit organizations—mirrors what Hung described as China’s desire for a settlement favoring Russia.

Hung asserted that establishing a loyal communications infrastructure and fostering a sympathetic audience in the United States and strategically important countries is key to Chinese economic aspirations and military ambitions. Whether Singham and his associates are acting under Beijing’s influence, or simply out of “political naivete,” the Hong Kong-born sociologist warned the International People’s Media Network would assist in this endeavor.

“They are thinking that if a war breaks out between the U.S. and China, that an anti-war movement breaks out around the world, spontaneously—or appearing spontaneous—that can restrain the U.S. And that includes in the United States itself,” said Hung. “​​There is a coincidence of interest between Beijing and these people trying to bring down so-called ‘U.S. domination of the world.’”

But Pertierra, the historian of Cuba, was skeptical that the new Tricontinental and its partner organizations could attain the influence of the original, as their Cold War-era worldview ill fits contemporary geopolitical realities.

“The new Tricontinental seems stuck in time even if they use 21st century technology to spread their message,” he wrote to The Daily Beast. “Their only option will be to ‘hide the ball’ by not being totally forthright about their views, or alternatively slowly sinking into obscurity, no matter how shiny their website looks.”

William Bredderman is Senior Researcher at The Daily Beast. @WillBredderman

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