New Delhi: Projecting that it’s not just India but many other countries that have battled a devastating second Covid wave is among the strategies being devised by the Union information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry to counter the criticism and bad press on the Modi government’s handling of the pandemic, ThePrint has learnt.
This was discussed late last week at a video conference held by the I&B ministry with senior functionaries in the administration, government officials said. The interaction was one of the daily video conferences that the ministry has been holding for two weeks to review the negative media coverage, and discuss ways to provide the government with tools counter to it through effective messaging.
Since the end of last week, the ministry has been holding two video conferences every day to review the coverage in domestic and global media, respectively.
The other suggestions discussed at the meeting in recent days include forming a team of former journalists to guide the government’s response on bad press, and encourage “positive opinion pieces” in media outlets.
Government officials said some of the suggestions made at the meetings in recent days have already been put into action.
Talking about the decision to project other countries’ battle with the second wave, a senior government official familiar with the developments told ThePrint the ministry “will point out that it is unfair to squarely put the blame on PM Modi and the government, which is trying its best to tackle the crisis that was an unanticipated wave”.
Reached for comment, the I&B Ministry said the meetings are “routine and to review the functioning of the media units”. The meetings, they added, are not aimed at countering “any adverse media publicity”.
“The government functions on consultation for which routine meetings are held to take information from the officers,” the ministry said.
“It seems a false narrative is sought to be created that the government is trying to allegedly ‘counter bad press’. Again, this is false and baseless,” it added.
‘Push for positive media coverage’
The Modi government has been at the receiving end of brickbats from around the world over what is seen as its shambolic handling of the second wave. Even as the wave took hold, the government allowed potential superspreader events such as campaign rallies and the Kumbh Mela to proceed.
Over the last few meetings of the I&B ministry, the participating government officials were told to issue the administration’s point of view proactively, particularly in response to the global media coverage, a second official said.
“There was an increased push on actively ensuring positive media coverage on the initiatives taken by the government as much as possible and amplifying them on social media for a wider reach,” the official told ThePrint.
This would include positive opinion pieces from columnists, and engaging influencers to spread the government’s word, sources in the government said.
The government’s communication arm, the Press Information Bureau, has been told to share its responses on the crisis and the vaccination process promptly with data and infographics, the sources added.
State-owned Doordarshan has also been told to put in content to counter “foreign media bias”, the sources said. In one of the meetings, sourced added, the ministry expressed displeasure over some Indian publications carrying foreign press articles fully or in excerpts.
‘Lack of surety suggestions will be accepted’
Some of these suggestions, the sources said, have already been implemented.
On 11 May, an e-paper called the Daily Sunday Guardian published an opinion piece by a BJP member that was titled, “PM Modi has been working hard, don’t get trapped in the opposition’s barbs”.
The article was widely shared by several Union cabinet ministers and BJP leaders.
On 12 May, former diplomat Bhaswati Mukherjee wrote a piece in The New Indian Express that was titled: “Once-in-a-century pandemic can’t be laid at government’s door”.
One seeming attempt to quell pandemic-related unease among the public appeared to backfire. Earlier this week, the Twitter handle of Mann Ki Baat — PM Modi’s monthly radio address — tweeted that the 30 May episode will celebrate the power of positivity. The tweet was subsequently deleted after backlash from Twitter users.
Highly-placed government sources said a crack team comprising a few former journalists has been formed to advise the ministry on ways to respond to bad press.
“However, there is a lack of acknowledgement in the ministry as to the very basic problem and the cause of the bad press,” a source said, adding that, in such a case, there is a lack of surety if any suggestions from the officials or journalists will be taken.
For example, the ministry, it is learnt, was not “very receptive” to the much-lauded “Mumbai Model” — a decentralised Covid-19 management plan undertaken by the Mumbai civic administration to control the second wave.
Government sources told ThePrint that, at one of the meetings, some officials pointed out that the lack of a vaccine strategy had received severe media criticism. To this, the ministry is learnt to have said that the health ministry will look at it.
However, the I&B Ministry sought to counter the claim that it was not receptive to the ‘Mumbai model’ idea.
“As regards the Mumbai model, it may be pointed out that this was detailed and discussed in the press briefing by the Union Ministry of Health. This press briefing was open to all,” it told ThePrint, seemingly referring to the 11 May Covid briefing where the Ministry of Health hailed Mumbai’s decentralised war rooms.
In its response, the I&B Ministry said the meetings in question “are not just happening during the Covid period but have been happening earlier also with officials of the ministry and media units”.
“The government has never prevented any debate or analysis of its policies and decisions, as is evident in stories appearing in the media freely reported by correspondents,” the ministry added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)