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‘Neutralise those writing against us’: Inside the govt’s plan to manage media perception

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad feels that “despite being in government”, there is a “gap” in online news platforms like the Wire, Scroll, and some other regional media. The government’s “core media intervention”, Prasad thinks, isn’t getting enlarged. To tackle this “gap”, a group of ministers held meeting with stakeholders like journalists, and industry professionals, noting the need for a strategy to “neutralise” the people who are writing against the government. After these consultations, the group of ministers prepared a report titled ‘Report of the Group of Ministers on Government Communication’, which was accessed by MediaNama, and first reported by the Caravan.

The agenda was clear: to devise strategies to manage the government’s image in the media, and in the process, identify a pool of influencers and journalists who sympathise with the government’s ideas, and would be willing to toe its line. The idea was to create something similar to the “Pokhran effect” — where the Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments enjoyed a surge in popularity following nuclear tests.

The group of ministers included five union cabinet ministers, and four Ministers of State: Ravi Shankar Prasad (Law, and IT), Smriti Irani (Textiles, and Women & Child Development), Prakash Javadekar (Information and Broadcasting, and Environment), S. Jaishankar (External Affairs), and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (Minority Affairs), were the five union ministers. Kiren Rijiju (Youth Affairs and Sports), Hardeep Singh Puri (Civil Aviation, and Urban Affairs), Anurag Thakur (Finance, and Corporate Affairs), and Babul Supriyo (Environment, and Forests & Climate Change), were the four state ministers.

The report prepared by the group of ministers noted that steps have been taken to ensure that news reporting in digital media is not “biased”, and counted limiting FDI to 26% in digital media companies as one of the government’s ‘positive initiatives in vogue’. The government had limited foreign investment in digital news companies to 26%, and had given news organisations a deadline of October 2021 to comply with it. HuffPost India had to shut its operations in the country following the diktat. The report also said that a “new mechanism need to be involved to ensure that OTT platform become more responsible.”

This makes two things very significant: First, limiting FDI in digital media companies to 26%, which has been criticised as a move to increase red tape in the industry; and second, the new digital media rules which increase the government’s control over online news, making it possible for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to block or modify online “news and current affairs” content, presumably stem from the government’s distrust of certain digital news sites.

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According to the Indian government’s new Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules, 2021, digital news publishers will now have to notify the government of their operations, set up self-regulatory organisations and apply a complaints redressal mechanism, as well as follow codes which have only been applicable to print and TV news so far.

‘Create a pool of spin doctors’: The action plan

The “same fact can be presented with different narratives. So, a pool of Spin Doctors who can do it for the Government should be identified and utilised,” was one of the suggested actions plans in the report. Other recommendations include:

  • Tracking 50 ‘negative’ influencers: “Some negative influencers give false narratives and discredit the Government. These need to be constantly tracked so that proper and timely response can be given,” the report suggested. This action plan seems to have come directly from a recommendation made by Smriti Irani, according to notes in the report.
  • ‘Young people’ should manage social media: All the ministries should recruit “Young Professionals” to handle social media, the report suggested.
  • Catching them young: “Present students are the future journalists,” the report said, suggesting that as a part of long-term strategy, engagement with journalism schools should be increased. “This will ensure that they understand and appreciate the government’s perspective,” it added.
  • Pool of supportive journalists: “There are many journalists with positive outlook who are also supportive of government’s view point. These journalists need to be engaged and promoted. This will create a pool of journalists who would better understand and appreciate the stand of Government,” the report said.

What is fake news, what is ‘negative’ news?

As per the record of consultations in the report, it is clear that the government’s media perception plan gives no space to responding to criticism. Instead, it buckets critical or “negative” news as “fake news”, and used the two terms interchangeably throughout the report. A definition of what the government constitutes as fake news was not given anywhere in the report.

Consider this paragraph from the report which conflates negative news and fake news:

“Fake news and false narratives create lot of confusion & misconception and these needs to be countered. This unit has been established in PIB and is working in tandem with all Ministries to counter fake news / false narratives. This way the immediate rebuttal of negative stories is possible.”

‘Prepare a list of pro-govt journalists’: IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad

The report said that a total of six meetings were held between the group of ministers. During the meetings, Prasad said that a “list of media personnel and prominent persons, who are pro our line of thought – both nationally and globally, should be prepared.”

Irani suggested that the government track 50 negative and positive influencers, while Naqvi said that the government needs to establish its own system of social media, and press. He also said that the government should have a “strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news.”

Dealing with criticism from international media was another key problem that the group of ministers set out to solve. Puri suggested that there is a “strong need to deal with the international media and to shape the global narrative.” One of the report’s action points also said that “international outreach is an important component in putting Government’s stand properly in international forum”, and that the government should interact with foreign media regularly.

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Thakur meanwhile said that “right wing parties of countries need to be roped in so that some common ground could be found.”

‘Handling Google should be separate discussion, ‘News should carry mixture of truth and untruth’

A meeting was held between “prominent personalities” and Prakash Javadekar on June 23, 2020. In this meeting, RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy said that news should carry a “mixture of truth and untruth”, and that its was the best time to chalk out a media strategy because the “media is in crisis and we should help them”. Kanchan Gupta of the Reliance-funded Observer Research Foundation (ORF) said that “Google promotes content o[n] Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms. How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into.”

BJP’s Swapan Dasgupta, a nominated Rajya Sabha MP, and a former journalist said: “While the emphasis should remain on reaching out to people, the power of persuasion should be used behind the scenes. These back-channel communications should start on priority by giving journalists a little bit extra in a calibrated approach.”

Journalists can be colour coded: Nitin Gokhale, a former journalist at NDTV, and Tehelka, and a person considered close to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval per Caravan suggested that journalists be colour coded as per their leanings. “Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists,” he said, according to the report.

‘Promote platforms like OpIndia’: Right-wing propaganda platform OpIndia should be promoted, the publication’s editor, Nupur Sharma said. Abhijit Majumdar, a former journalist at Mail Today while calling fact-checking site AltNews’s “propaganda” as “vicious”, said “help Op-India and re-tweet Op-India tweets”. AltNews has often fact checked several pieces of misinformation spread by OpIndia. “Wikipedia is trying to re-write history. It has clear bias. Serious note and action on the same should be taken,” Majumdar said.

Another meeting was held on 26 June, 2020 at the residence of Kiren Rijiju, along with Naqvi. The following people attended that meeting: Alok Mehta, Jayant Ghoshal, Shishir Gupta, Praful Ketkar, Mahua Chatterjee, Nistula Haibar, Amitabh Sinha, Ashutosh, Ram Narain, Ravish Tiwari, Himanshu Mishra, and Ravindra. However, from the records present in the report, it is hard to attribute recommendations to these people.

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