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

04 March 2021
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
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

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.”

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: media coverage digital media government crackdown surveillance
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