New Delhi: A recent judgment by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) on an Army complaint has put the spotlight on the gaping holes in the Indian military’s media policy and strategic communications and triggered a debate about the need for an upgrade.
The Army’s Additional Directorate General of Public Information (ADGPI) had in June 2018 lodged the complaint over TV news telecast of a video of Rifleman Aurangzeb, who was captured and murdered by militants in Kashmir last year.
The Army had argued that airing the video did not only further terrorist propaganda but also affected the dignity of the deceased soldier. It added that broadcasting the video was against the Geneva Convention and violated the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards.
Responding to the complaint, the NBSA, a watchdog for broadcast media, early this month had 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.
Observers say that the complaint and the NBSA verdict reflects the fact that the Indian military is still grappling with an outdated media policy that tests its communication strategies during a hostile event. They added that it also shows that the policy is not equipped to tackle the challenges of the proliferating 24×7 media.
The lack of a coherent communication policy was also exposed during the recent Balakot strikes, especially when Pakistan launched a disinformation campaign of its own. The communication gap between India’s military and media compounded the confusion.
The former head of the ADGPI, Lt Gen. Shokin Chauhan, told ThePrint that the NBSA judgment should be a guideline for media houses on how not to broadcast footage that shows an Indian soldier in a disadvantageous position.
“The ADGPI must always have a dialogue with the media in such cases. In the end, nobody would like to work against national security,” Chauhan, who headed the Army Liason Cell during the Kargil conflict, said. The cell later evolved into the ADGPI.
But during Balakot, “there was no coordination because it became a political issue”, he said.
‘Scope for improvement’
The Army’s media policy is a classified document and the Special Army Order underlines the basic dos and dont’s 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 interaction.
“Our media policy is a fairly open one. There is scope for improvement but of course we decide to what extent we can reveal our plans, our capability, to the media without compromising national security,” an army official said. The Army’s existing media policy has remained the same even as media outlets have mushroomed in the last 20 years, he added.
Not just amending the military’s media policy, there should also be a consolidated structure at the national level involving the ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, External Affairs, I&B and Commerce, on information dissemination to the media, said Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia, director at the Center for Joint Warfare Studies.
Bhatia said that during Pulwama and Balakot, “we lost out on the information war to Pakistan, possibly because of the lack of a consolidated structure with right mandate and authority to interact with media”.
The situation, however, was different during Kargil when regular briefings were held and media was given a free hand, he added. But the military hasn’t been able to handle the media explosion effectively since then.
New steps, however, are being taken. The Ministry of Defence in March cleared a separate information warfare branch by combining branches dealing with public information and information warfare to combat misinformation campaigns. The new branch will handle perception management, psychological operations, cyber warfare, and other important information dissemination.
Complex clearance process for media
Journalists say that the gap between the media and the military has also widened because of the rigid approval process needed to visit sensitive border locations and Army installations.
Earlier, permissions used to come through in weeks, but now the clearance process can take three months or more, media groups told ThePrint. The process entails a series of security checks from the time of application to the ADGPI detailing the purpose of the visit, interview questions, which are also vetted by the military intelligence (MI) when the answers come. The multilayered clearance process, first by ADGPI and then by another MI branch, can often delay the permissions and loss of news relevance of a story.
It is also impossible for the media to stay confined to the questions submitted in advance. The set answers do little to empower those at the field areas in terms of handling information, Army sources said.
“In the absence of an institutionalised structure in place, an information warfare officer at the ground manages to have little interaction with the local media, which is just one of his/her many roles,” an army source said.
Former defence journalist and editor-in-chief of Defence and Security Alert Manvendra Singh said the media-military relation is also governed by what the Ministry of Defence allows.
“Also in the lack of set guidelines, the problem within the Army is also who takes the call on allowing a media organisation or giving out particular information to the media. In the military, heads roll fast,” Singh said, adding that this leads to an agitation in the media and a delay through ignoring a request on the military’s part.
“Moreover the regulations are outdated. The manpower at the ADGPI is limited and not all are trained adequately in information warfare — a potent weapon,” he added.
Singh further said that the relationship between the military and the media is also important, given that the military has become more secretive than earlier and the media has become more intrusive.
“The forms of media have changed and some didn’t exist before,” he said. “Also the fact that information is more easily available now adds to the stress.”
Confusion and rumour mongering
The media is also in the dark about operations, particularly in sensitive locations such as Jammu & Kashmir, which have led to confusion and rumour-mongering on the ground.
Responding to a query in this regard, another Army official said that the media can’t, of course, expect a ball-by-ball commentary in such cases.
“A lot of the military operations are carried out in secrecy. Also, we do not have the concept of embedded journalists like many other countries,” the official said, referring to the system when journalists are attached to specific military units. According to a RAND report, the embedded press system has appeared to be the best solution so far at balancing the needs of the press, military and the public.
Lt General S.L. Narasimhan, a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), said there is a difference between the requirements of the military and the media.
“The media feels that the Army is sluggish and its aim is to carry out the operations first and then speak to the media,” he said. “One way of bridging the gap is when an operation is going on, there should be an arrangement for the media separately. So there should be a media plan with an operation plan.”