A Central Government report by a Group of Ministers (GoM) accessed by the Caravan has detailed the government’s efforts to set the “narrative” and counter what the government sees as negative publicity in the media. The report, prepared by five cabinet ministers and four ministers of state, was being prepared at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak and “prominent persons from the media field”, “members of industry/business chambers,” and other “prominent personalities” were consulted before it was prepared.
News of the report comes at a time when the government has put in place the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which have come in for much criticism with journalists’ unions saying they “appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy” in some places.
The GoM report laid out a plan to track journalists who paint the government in an unflattering light and to “promote” and “nurture” those willing to put out what the powers that be regard as news.
“We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news,” Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi observed. Aside from Naqvi the other cabinet ministers part of the process were the minister of law and justice and communications Ravi Shankar Prasad, textiles and women and child development minister Smriti Irani, information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. MoSs included Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur, Babul Supriyo, and Kiren Rijiju.
In its conclusion, the report says that it has highlighted “the important narratives that need to be
communicated. It further delves into the strategies that can adopted for the same. Specific action points to achieve the desired results have been listed.”
“The responsibilities have been fixed issue-wise, ministry wise and also group of
secretaries wise,” it added.
Accordingly, the report has assigned responsibilities of “Mass Circulation of Positive stories” alongside the “Constant tracking of 50 negative influencers” and the “Regular engagement with 50 positive influencers”, those that “project Government’s work positively and in right perspective should be encouraged and provided with requisite information. This will help to put the Government’s view point in the right perspective.”
“Pseudo-secularists were marginalised earlier. The problem is starting from them,” Surya Prakash, a journalist who now heads Prasar Bharati, was quoted saying in the report. Journalist Nitin Gokhale went further, asking for media persons to be slotted in categories: “Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists.”
Gokhale has since called the report “utter lies” and threatened legal action against the magazine. He seemed particularly miffed at not having been tagged on Twitter.
Utter lies. That’s it. Please be prepared to face legal consequences. Btw, you are a coward who didn’t have the guts to tag me Hartosh. https://t.co/NTPryqJDcQ
— Nitin A. Gokhale (@nitingokhale) March 4, 2021
The government’s desire to curb digital news media, as seen from the aforementioned IT Rules, is also seen aplenty in the report. “While we get insightful suggestions, it is not explained how despite being in Government, there is still a gap in the online media like Wire, Scroll and some regional media,” law minister Prasad opined.
Given that it does not seem to be ‘controlling’ the narrative in the digital space, Prasad and others seemed enthused with the idea of a ‘Pokhran Effect’. Coined by RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy, the reference to the nuclear tests during A.B. Vajpayee’s time as PM. Gurumurthy, one of the “prominent personalities” consulted suggested favourable commentary from the likes of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, saying ‘Republic’ was been seen as a “pariah”.
“Planned communication is good for normal times but to create Pokhran effect, let Shri Nitish Kumar or Shri Naveen Patnaik say something about it. This is being done by Republic, but Republic is seen as a pariah. Therefore, we need a Pokhran to turn the narrative,” Gurumurthy said.
The report also mentioned that a perception seemed to exist that the opinion pieces written by ministers for newspapers were not being read and were instead “counterproductive”, according to Ashok Malik, a former columnist and now a government advisor.
The one section in the report which does not assign observations to any particular person is the one where current working journalists gave their opinions. “A meeting was held on 26th June 2020 at the residence of Shri Kiren Rijiju along with Shri Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi wherein the following persons from media attended it,” it said, going on to name journalists Alok Mehta, Jayant Ghoshal, Shishir Gupta, Praful Ketkar, Mahua Chatterjee, Nistula Hebbar, Amitabh Sinha, Ashutosh, Ram Narain, Ravish Tiwari, Himanshu Mishra and Ravindra.
The following “observations” were made by the “participants”:
Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi and are ideologically with the party.
We should form different groups of these persons and communicate with them on a regular basis.
Lack of communication has resulted in the positive things not being put in an influential manner.
Government should give the supporting background material to the supportive media before the launch of any big programme and also during the follow-up for its better publicity.
A group of media friendly representatives from the government (Ministers) and the party should be formed to give regular information of the government programmes.
There should not be any contradictions in the messages of the Government. All the Ministries should speak in one voice.
The press releases of government and party should be in all the major regional languages also.
The PIB is handling the social media, online media, etc., also with the same staff strength.
Groups should be formed of supportive editors, columnists, journalists and commentators and they should be regularly engaged.
The government resources should be effectively used to ensure that the information reaches to the last person.
The differences between the government and the media have increased and it should be taken care of.
The interactions with the foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive.