New Delhi: The Army is altering its 15-year-old media policy to keep pace with changing communication dynamics as information warfare becomes the new buzzword.
The aim is to liberalise the media policy and to address the “ambiguity” in the current one, Army sources told ThePrint.
The Army, the sources said, has recently written to all its commands seeking suggestions to be included in the new media policy.
The policy, made for the internal use of the service, is a classified document and the Special Army Order underlines the basic dos and don’ts of the military-media interaction. Army Rule 21 and paragraph 322 of the Defence Service Regulations (regulations for the Army) list the guidelines for such interactions.
The current policy is seen as outdated, as it was first drafted in 2005, and since then, the media had not only expanded but also recast itself into new modes and platforms since.
What the current policy states
The existing media policy is a basic document that states that no Army interaction should reveal operational and classified details. It says that only Army commanders and above, the Additional Directorate General of Public Information (ADGPI), and personnel authorised by them can interact with the media, among other dos and don’ts.
Army sources said the current policy does not include the growth in interactions on social media, which are major channels of information dissemination by the Army today. Sources said the policy is also fairly silent on interactions on the lower headquarters of the Army with the regional media, even on matters not relating to operations, such as training, administration and welfare measures. Media engagement on certain matters is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Army’s struggles with media explosion
The massive proliferation of media in India since 2005 has brought forth new challenges for the Army, including implementing effective and coherent communication strategies during a hostile event, or soon after a crisis situation, which the outdated policy has not been able to address, insiders said.
As reported by ThePrint earlier, the lack of cohesive and fast media communication during the Balakot air strikes last year had also highlighted how the Indian military in general lacks a proper modern media strategy.
The first information of Indian fighter aircraft crossing the LoC came through a tweet by Major General Asif Ghafoor, then-chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, at 0512 hours.
Even before officers from the Indian Air Force or the Army could give any formal or even unofficial information to the media, the ISPR had launched full-fledged information warfare, including a picture of a dead crow to show the “casualty” of the strike.
Two days later, the three services held a haphazard joint press conference on the lawns of New Delhi’s South Block, while across the border, the ISPR held multiple press briefings in a formal manner.
Officials had, at that time, admitted that it was a bad move to organise the tri-services press conference in such a way when the entire world was watching.
Moreover, when television channels had telecast a chilling video of rifleman Aurangzeb, who was captured and murdered by militants in Kashmir last year, the Army had no option but to lodge a complaint to broadcast media watchdog News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA).
The NBSA had then urged news channels to be considerate while reporting on the killing of Army personnel, so that it doesn’t help terrorism planners, and military recruitment isn’t adversely affected.
A senior Army officer who is well versed with the media policy told ThePrint that while the Army or any arm of the military cannot regulate the media in a situation where a video is public, “there is no formal strategy in place to undo the repercussions caused by a video like that”.
What the new policy could entail
A second Army officer said the new media policy will be more liberal than the current one.
“The Army is looking at liberalising the existing media policy. But social media norms will continue to be stringent,” the officer said.
The Army had, in an advisory to its personnel, listed out the modalities for using social media, calling WhatsApp a vulnerable platform and Facebook a crucial source of collecting intelligence.
At present, media facilitation is a lengthy and rigid process, meaning that journalists’ interactions with Army officers or visits to certain sensitive border locations can take weeks, with a number of approvals involved. The delay caused by the multi-layered clearance process can lead to loss of news relevance for the media.
Liberalising the media policy will entail a re-look at all these processes, the officer quoted above said.
A third Army officer said that the 2005 policy is vague and ambiguous, leaving room for greater interpretation.
“The new policy will also aim at bringing in more clarity to the process and permissions related to media and dissemination of information. It will take a more detailed and comprehensive look at the challenges emerging out of a media explosion. At present, it leaves room for a lot of ambiguity,” the second officer said.
A fourth officer pointed out that the current media policy only covers interactions and press briefings, with a particular focus on the print media.
“Both the media and the social media policy cumulatively have left voids in the PR (public relations) setup of the Indian Army. They are just restricted to operational and ceremonial media interactions,” this officer said, adding that engaging the media is just one platform and the new policy should go beyond that.
“The need of the hour is a new holistic policy, which will not merely be a media policy but an enabling document for all PR engagements,” the officer said, adding that it should be able to sustain for at least 10 years.
“As far as media interactions are concerned, officers are the grassroots level should be empowered to be able to interact on the operative part of an event.”
A fifth officer said the new policy should empower officers at the ground. “Also, with the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), there could also be a need for a joint media strategy for all three services,” this officer said.
‘Embrace the internet and social media’
Responding to a query on the current setup of media engagements by the military, Lt Gen. Satish Dua (retd), former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, said the military and the media are radically different in their way of operating.
“While the media and even social media is spontaneous and intrusive at times, the military by nature is confidential. Military verifies facts first, but media/social media are in a hurry to propagate. To bridge this gap, the military needs to embrace enablers like the internet and social media and leverage them so that they can be used positively,” Dua told ThePrint.
He also gave the example of the British Army, which encourages officers to open a Twitter account, and grooms them early in their careers in the usage of social media.
Navy and Air Force policies
The Navy, too, has a detailed Navy Order on the modalities and procedures for media interaction, which was upgraded in 2017, considering the emerging challenges of a media explosion.
The Indian Air Force Order on media dates back to 2011, and has not been revised since.
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