TNM has accessed a report submitted by the Committee of a Group of Ministers constituted to look into government communication.

Ravi Shanker Prasad and Prakash Javadekar holding up documents to show the camerasImage Credit: PTI
news Policy Thursday, March 04, 2021 - 20:53

The Union government has held a consultation with several people and has come out with a strategy to ‘neutralise’ critical voices of digital journalists. A report titled ‘Report of the Group of Ministers on Government Communication’ accessed by TNM, identifies digital media in India as a space that spreads ‘negative information’, goes on to conflate ‘negative information’ with fake news, and talks about strategies to monitor and counter digital journalists and influencers.
However, at no point in the report, which took suggestions from ‘prominent personalities’ (including several journalists) one of whom says news should carry a ‘mix of truth and untruth’, is there any suggestion that the government should engage with criticism of any nature. 

The 97-page report comes on the back of meetings of a Group of Ministers (GoM) and other stakeholders in June and July 2020. Ravi Shanker Prasad, Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar, Dr S Jaishanker, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi are the five Union ministers who were part of the committee. Kiren Rijiji, Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur and Babul Supriyo are the Ministers of State who were in the committee.

The Prime Minister was briefed by the GoM and later he shared his insights and also gave vital inputs to the GoM. The GoM met six times, and a series of meetings were held with media personnel, prominent personalities and business representatives before the report was made. 

And a reading of the report makes it clear that this process was the prelude to at least two major policy decisions: Limiting of FDI in media, and the new IT rules that cover digital media. 

‘Neutralise people writing against govt’

The report on Government communication that TNM has accessed, has laid down in detail the observations and comments of all the Ministers who were part of the GoM. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Minister of Communications, Information & Technology and Electronics, in his remarks revealed what seems to have been the trigger for this entire process. “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. Our core media intervention is not getting enlarged,” he said. 

That digital media in India is not fawning over the government unlike mainstream media seems to be a problem for the government. While Prakash Javadekar (I&B) said “Bold decisions should be made,” Jaishankar (MEA) felt there should be a “separate, appropriate and different narrative” for international media. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (Minority Affairs) however got to the root of the government’s ham-handed approach to the issue of criticism: “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news.”

Conflating ‘negative narrative’ and fake news

Throughout the report, there is little differentiation made between ‘negative narrative’, and fake news and false information. The concepts — of criticism on the one hand, and deliberate spreading of misinformation and disinformation on the other — seem to be seen as one and the same by the government. 

Sample this: One of the ‘Action Points’ in the report says, “Curbing fake news through Fact Check Unit – Fake news and false narratives create a lot of confusion & misconception and these need to be countered. This unit has been established in PIB and is working in tandem with all Ministries to counter fake news / false narratives. This way the immediate rebuttal of negative stories is possible.”

Nowhere in the report however is there a definition of ‘negative stories’ or ‘false narratives’. Prakash Javadekar in his comments says, “narrative is fuelled by around 20-30 people and that the lines keep changing many times in a single day.”

‘A pool of spin doctors’

Perhaps the most amusing part of the report is the unabashed way in which propagandist strategies are discussed. At three points in the report — all action items and not discussions leading up to different conclusions — the term ‘pool of spin doctors’ is used. One of the ‘Action Points’ says, “Identify persons with ability to give good arguments – Same fact can be presented with different narratives. So, a pool of Spin Doctors who can do it for the Government should be identified and utilised.”

At different points, the report also decides to use domain experts, favourable journalists — including out-of-work journalists — to present the government’s line in better ways. 

Identifying ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ influencers

The report is untiringly obsessed with ‘grouping’ journalists and influencers as ‘positive’ and negative’. One of the people who the government consulted gave a shocking suggestion to start colour-coding journalists. “Journalists can be colour coded: Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists,” it says. 

The government's action items are slightly more sanitised — but only slightly. The report decides to track 50 negative and 50 positive influencers — a suggestion given by Smriti Irani (Women & Child). It says:

Constant tracking of 50 negative influencers – Some negative influencers give false narratives and discredit the Government. These need to be constantly tracked so that proper and timely responses can be given.

Regular engagement with 50 positive influencers – Few influencers in social media who project Government’s work positively and in the right perspective should be encouraged and provided with requisite information. This will help to put the Government’s view point in the right perspective.

Controlling the narrative abroad

Another major aspect of the report is a focus of the ministers on countering ‘false narratives’ and ‘negative narratives’ about the government in foreign countries. Among the ‘10 Big Initiatives’ that the government wants to communicate to the people is ‘Projecting India’s Soft Power Globally’ — which includes Yoga and Heritage Tourism. 

One of the strategies for countering ‘false narratives’ in the government’s toolkit is, “An effective system of communication with the NRI community should be established and they should be supported so that they can also raise their voice against negative stories/narratives in the foreign countries.”

A strategy suggested by Anurag Thakur (MoS Finance), which doesn’t seem to have made the final cut, is: “The right wing parties of other countries need to be roped in so that some common ground could be found.”

What prominent personalities said

On June 26, 2020 Kiren Rijiju along with Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi met with a group of 12 journalists. The report names the 12 journalists and has put forth observations made by them, without attributing it to any of them. Surprisingly, this is the only portion in the report which has not attributed to anything. 

S Gururmurthy, an RSS idealogue, a member of the RBI board and also a journalist editing the Tamil weekly Tuglak, suggests, “News to carry mixture of truth and untruth”. He also observed that, “Planned communication is good for normal times but to create Pokhran effect, let Nitish Kumar or 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.”

The ‘Pokhran effect’ is discussed in a couple of other places in the report, but doesn’t make it to the final strategy. 

Swapan Dasgupta, a former journalist and nominated Rajya Sabha member, said, “After 2014, there was a change. It was marginalization of stalwarts. Mr Modi won despite them. He chose to ignore them. He met people directly through social media. It is this ecosystem which is hitting back to remain relevant. Dasgupta also suggested that, “Back-channel communications should start on priority by giving  journalists a little bit extra in a calibrated approach.”

Kanchan Gupta, a journalist, political analyst and an activist felt “Google promotes content or Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms. How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into. Digital media and online media generate much heat and that usually gets transferred to main national media and 20 international media.”

Nupur Sharma, the editor of right wing website OpIndia, which frequently publishes fake news, suggested, “Online portals like Op-India should be promoted.” This suggestion makes it to the final action points of the report. Abhijith Majumdar, who was formerly with Mail Today, echoed this, and added, “ALT News propaganda is vicious. Wikipedia is trying to rewrite history. It has clear bias. Serious note and action on the same should be taken.”  

READ: COVID-19 lockdown through the lens of woman photographers living across the world

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