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Opinion » Columns » Sevanti Ninan

Updated: August 7, 2010 13:22 IST

Media Matters: Losing the propaganda war

Sevanti Ninan
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Information and its flow and control play a major role in combating terrorism and militancy. And the government doesn't seem to have a well-defined policy in place…

Yesterday it was a handful of men holding different groups of people in a large city to ransom, today it is several bands of men in contiguous jungles holding the State to ransom. In both circumstances the media is both pawn and spoiler, a force to be handled if the battle is to go your way. What is interesting is how a year later the government and security forces are as clueless about handling them as they were last November.

The channel 4 film on 26/11 shown on HBO last week (“Terror in Mumbai: Dispatches”) has established, if indeed proof was needed, that television coverage helped the terrorist handlers during the unfolding of the operations at the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident to direct their men on the ground. It showed excerpts from the intercepts, of the handler watching TV and deducing how the impact of the attack was shaping up:

Handler: Start the fire now, nothing is going to happen until you start the fire. When people see the flames they will begin to be afraid.

And later he exults,

This is the most important target. The media is covering the target Taj Mahal more than any other.

Tackling conflict situations

So did the government use the year between then and now to figure out how to deal with live television in a terror situation? We do not know if some sharp minds are actually tackling the question of an information policy that adapts itself to different conflict situations as they emerge. But if you contrast the three days in November last year with the confrontation with the Naxals that has been unfolding on TV since October this year, it is obvious that between an untrained media eager for a story and the police official in Chattisgarh who is reported to have told reporters that if they go into the jungle to cover how the conflict is affecting people, they could become dead meat, another propaganda war is being lost by the government.

Do TV channels now have rules in place on what they will show and not show? Judging from the manner TV covered one police officer's beheaded torso and another's release from captivity by the Naxalites, it does not seem so. The State's enemy currently makes a better story than the State's counter insurgency efforts do, so reporters let the Naxal bosses dictate the terms in gaining access to them.

When TV panel debates posit the Naxals as champions of those who are losing their land to industrialists and their compensation money to middlemen, and of people who are victims of non-development, the State has no counter to this psychological theme.

Does a country fighting fires on many fronts need a cogent information policy? The answer can hardly be no. What should its elements be? Prescriptions abound. A both pithy and comprehensive list of what an information policy should cover comes from former Lt. General Arjun Ray, the man who handled the media a decade ago as the Kargil war unfolded, the government's point man for India's first TV war. He says the main objective is, what are the government's strategies for information dominance and how are we going to achieve them? So what you need is a clear policy covering the following: accessibility of media to combat zones, whether in Chattisgarh or in a city under terror attack, or in a border war. A policy on media briefing. Media structures required at different levels — state level, battalion level, district level. Background briefings — what is the policy on rank and file? Is a solider allowed to talk to the media or is he not? How do you protect your own people from hostile propaganda?

A beginning

On the first three points the central government says it has done some work: as compared to last year there is a standard operating procedure that has now been drawn up, that includes who will do the authorised briefing at what level, and a control room at the press information bureau that will go into 24 hour mode when necessary. Some structures are still being put in place, some ends tied up. But not much beyond that, as far as this column could gather.

Says Ray, all terrorist organisations have a powerful media unit. Their job is to conduct propaganda, you are here to counter it. We need a policy on the use of the Internet. What is your policy on Facebook? Today a large number of military personnel are on it, writing about their experiences and they should not be. What is your policy on censorship? What news should be censored or should not be? What are the key components of psychological themes to be developed in a given situation, in countering Naxals, for instance. Who will develop conflict specific psychological themes? The army does psy-ops, but does the effort need to go beyond the army when you contemplate something like Operation Green Hunt? How will you handle the regional media, how will you handle blogs? Who will create your websites and what should they contain? A psychological war, says Ray, demands the establishment's best brains. An average General can handle the troops, but you can't have an average guy handling the media.

Media offensives

The amendments to the Information Technology Act of 2001 have taken care of banning websites as soon as a relevant ministry gives an order. But what about influencing opinion on the Web? That is a taller order.

So between the government, army and security forces, is there, post 26/11, any urgency on putting together a bunch of people with competence and flair to handle information in a variety of situations ranging from terror attacks to ongoing militancy to counter insurgency? Given the way the government functions, the answer is probably no.

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