Paranoia about digital coverage led ministers to propose media clampdown, monitoring “negative influencers”

Cabinet ministers Smriti Irani (left), Ravi Shankar Prasad (centre) and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (right) attend a conference on 31 July 2020. All three were members of a Group of Ministers who submitted a report that proposed measures to improve the image of the government in the media. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
04 March, 2021

The government’s move to regulate digital news and social media follows a road map chalked out during the height of the pandemic, in a report on government communication prepared by a group of ministers, or GoM, comprising five cabinet ministers and four ministers of state. One of the core concerns of the report has been voiced in an observation by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the union minister of minority affairs, “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news.”

The choice of words is revealing, as is the fact that the report does not spell out what a fake narrative is and how the government chooses to define it. Though its mandate was couched in cautious terms, the GoM’s report clearly sought to improve the image of the government in the media, and there is no ambiguity in how it proposed to go about it. The report laid out the need to identify journalists who generate negative narratives, find others who can counter them and to create events of a spectacular nature that would influence public perception in its favour.

The recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which has come under criticism for excessive government control over digital media, are clearly in keeping with this strategy. Evidently, the government’s stranglehold over the mainstream media is not reflected in its own perception of the media environment.

The report, parts of which have been accessed by The Caravan, was based on six meetings of the GoM in mid 2020, and consultations with “prominent persons from the media field,” and “members of industry/business chambers,” and other “prominent personalities.” The details of the GoM’s report had first appeared in a Hindustan Times article published on 8 December 2020. Apart from Naqvi, the cabinet members in the GoM included Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister of law and justice and of communications, electronics and information and technology; Smriti Irani, the minister of textiles and of women and child development; Prakash Javadekar, the minister of information and broadcasting; and S Jaishankar, the minister of external affairs. The ministers of state were Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur, Babul Supriyo, and Kiren Rijiju.

The report proposed a range of recommendations to address the perceived image crisis. Implementing a recommendation by Irani to track 50 negative and positive influencers, the report assigned the responsibility for “Constant tracking of 50 negative influencers” to the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre of the ministry of information and broadcasting, or MIB. Under a section titled, “Action Points,” the report notes, “Some negative influencers give false narratives and discredit the Government. These need to be constantly tracked so that proper and timely response can be given.” Correspondingly, the action points also include “Regular engagement with 50 positive influencers” and “Engaging with journalists … who are supportive of Government or neutral.” The report noted that such journalists would “not only give positive stories but also counter the false narratives.”

The government’s paranoia is evident in the views of the ministers and key media personalities noted in the report. Swapan Dasgupta, a former mediaperson who is now a Rajya Sabha member of parliament for the BJP, has been quoted as stating, “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 eco-system which is hitting back to remain relevant.” Dasgupta proposed that “the power of persuasion should be used behind the scenes.” He added, “These back-channel communications should start on priority by giving journalists a little bit extra in a calibrated approach.” In recent weeks, Delhi courts have admonished the Delhi Police for media leaks of its investigations to selective news channels twice, in the case against Disha Ravi and in the Delhi violence conspiracy case.

Surya Prakash, a mediaperson who now heads Prasar Bharati, echoed Dasgupta: “Pseudo-secularists were marginalised earlier. The problem is starting from them.” He went on to state what needs to be done. “Indian Government has enormous power to utilise the position to control them,” he said, adding that “we need to introspect” the fact that in the last six years, “we have not enlarged the list of media friends by having new allies.”

Nitin Gokhale, who was formerly with NDTV and Tehelka, and is now close to the national security advisor Ajit Doval, suggested that any such process must begin by colour-coding journalists. “Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists.”

This would appear farcical but for the fact that since the report has been prepared two of the key points regarding control of digital content have already been acted upon. In a section titled, “Positive Initiatives in Vogue,” the report noted, “Steps have been taken to ensure that the news reporting on digital media is not biased primarily due to its foreign investment component. It has been decided to cap the foreign investment to 26% and the process to implement the same is under way.” The report also stated, “New mechanism need to be involved to ensure that OTT platform become more responsible.”

In August 2019, the union cabinet cleared a decision to cap foreign investment in digital media at 26 percent, and gave news organisations a deadline of one year from October 2020 to comply with the new norms. The next month, Huffington Post, which pursued several stories critical of the central government, shut its operations in India. Jonah Peretti, the CEO of BuzzFeed—which acquired Huffington Post days before the Indian operations shut down—had said at the time that he was not “legally allowed to take on the Brazil and India editions” because “foreign companies aren’t allowed to control news organisations.” The IT Rules of 2021 empower the government to exercise greater control over over-the-top, or OTT platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

This anxiety about digital media is reflected throughout the report. Kanchan Gupta, a distinguished fellow at the Reliance-funded think-tank Observer Research Foundation, suggested another possible direction for the government to focus on. “Google promotes content or (sic) Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms,” he said. “How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into.” He noted that “online media generates much heat” and added, “We should know how to influence the online media or we should have our own On-online portal with global content.”

The union law minister Prasad voiced the government’s frustration at its inability to exercise complete control of the narrative. “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,” he said. “Our core media intervention is not getting enlarged.”

In the face of this perceived hostility, the government has even given a name to the idea of the government acting in a dramatic and decisive manner to seize control of the narrative—the “Pokhran effect.” The term invokes the nuclear tests carried out by the former prime ministers, first under Indira Gandhi in 1974 and then Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998. Both led to huge publicity boosts for the respective governments.

The idea stemmed from the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, who was one of the “prominent personalities” consulted for the report. Gurumurthy elaborated, “How to change the eco-system like Pokhran, how to handle media hostility, how to bother about main-line media? All these should be focused upon.” He proposed using the allied, non-BJP chief ministers of Bihar and Odisha to shift the narrative. “Planned communication is good for normal times but to create Pokhran effect, let Shri Nitish Kumar or Shri 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.”

Perhaps, it is only through such a lens that we can truly understand the periodic drama that intersperses the Modi government’s terms in power—from a surgical strike to demonetisation. Prasad noted as much in the report: “Concept of ‘Pokhran effect’ is good and should be used in other messaging also.”

The law minister went on to recommend that “Few eminent academicians, VCs, retired IFS officers etc should be identified who can write our achievements and project out view point.” The need to look outside the government for such pieces seemed to stem from a perception that Ashok Malik, a policy advisor in the ministry of external affairs, or MEA, spelled out in the report. “Stop Op-Ed by Ministers, top bureaucrats because it has become an epidemic and it is counterproductive, because it sounds like propaganda and it is not being read,” Malik said.

While assigning the MIB the responsibility of finding people who can do better than the government’s own ministers and bureaucrats, the report is honest and unambiguous in its assessment of what this requires. The action points listed: “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.”

The report claimed to have consulted “prominent persons from the media field” during a meeting with Naqvi and the minister of state Kiren Rijiju at the latter’s residence on 26 June 2020. The report named the journalists “Alok Mehta, Jayant Ghoshal, Shishir Gupta, Praful Ketkar, Mahua Chatterjee, Nistula Haibar, Amitabh Sinha, Ashutosh, Ram Narain, Ravish Tiwari, Himanshu Mishra and Ravindra,” without identifying their institutional affiliations. Curiously, when contacted by The Caravan, many of these journalists said that no such meeting was planned as part of a consultation with the GoM on government communication. Rather, they said, it was supposed to be an informal interaction with senior government ministers, including Jaishankar, the external-affairs minister, at a time when tensions with China were in focus.

Yet, the report attributes a set of observations to the journalists collectively without naming individuals. It is the only section of the report where such observations are not directly attributed to specific individuals. These observations include:

Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi and are ideologically with the party.

We should form different groups of these persons and communicate with them on a regular basis.

Government should give the supporting background material to the supportive media before the launch of any big programme and also during the follow-up for its better publicity.

Groups should be formed of supportive editors, columnists, journalists and commentators and they should be regularly engaged.

The interactions with the foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive.

Considering the journalists mentioned include senior correspondents with organisation such as the Indian Express and The Hindu, it is surprising that these observations sound even more extreme than the rest of the report. The Caravan contacted several of these journalists named in the report. While the executive editor of the Hindustan Times, Shishir Gupta, did not respond, the others distanced themselves from the observations attributed to them but were unwilling to be named.

The only person to go on record was Jayanta Ghoshal, who was formerly the political editor at India TV and now works with the West Bengal government. “We went there to meet Jaishankar,” Ghoshal said. “We were never informed of any interaction with a GoM on government communication and no such formal interaction took place. No notes were taken by anyone on behalf of the ministers present there. I do not know how they came up with these observations.”

Far from cutting off interaction with the foreign media, as purportedly suggested by the journalists, it is clear from the report that the government tasked the MEA and the MIB with “Engagement with Foreign Media.” The report noted, “International outreach is an important component in putting Government’s stand properly in international forum. Regular interaction with foreign media journalists would help disseminate correct information and perspective of the Government, especially on the sensitive issues.”

Under this administration, no such report would be complete without the government looking after its own. Nupur Sharma, the editor of OpIndia unsurprisingly recommended, “The online portals like Op-India should be promoted.” Abhijit Majumdar, formerly of Mail Today, after stating that Alt News propaganda is “vicious” echoed Sharma: “Help Op-India and re-tweet Op-India tweets.” OpIndia is a right-wing website that is infamous for publishing fake news and government propaganda. Alt News is a fact-checking website that has repeatedly highlighted the misinformation spread by OpIndia.

The GoM took note and assigned this task to the MIB. The report stated, “Promote Online Portals- It is needed to promote and support online portals (like Op India) as most of the existing online portals are critical of Government.”

Read the report in full:

Editor’s Note: The full text of the Group of Ministers’ report was uploaded after the article was published.