Former Defence Ministry and Indian Army Spokesperson Colonel Anil Bhat,VSM (Retd) spoke to Mission Victory India on Military-Media relations in India, in part-1 of this series covering views from both sides of the fence…
Q: How has your experience with the Indian media been in your military career?
Ans: It began in 1988 as a major pioneering experience. After being selected in 1988 and without being given any kind of media orientation/training, I took it as it came and raised two new Ministry of Defence, Public Relations (MoD, DPR) regional offices at Imphal, Manipur in 1988-89 and at Guwahati, Assam in 1990-91.
Both these tenures were very eventful as, in addition to insurgent groups in Manipur and Nagaland, a fresh movement had begun in Assam in the late 1980s by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which came under the grip of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Bangladesh, where it had a large presence during the tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party under Khaleda Zia.
It was the ISI which entered the North East, thanks to ULFA, that the NE insurgency groups not only spread far and wide and it was the ISI which converted them to function as terrorists.
There was never a dull moment. My period of five years in the North East as not just a PRO but also a spokesperson for the Services, were most satisfying as one was able to influence public opinion through the media, by first convincing the media in the face of criticism of the Army’s role of combatting insurgency and terrorism and second, by convincing the formation commanders at brigade and above level, including even the Eastern Army Commander, that we should maintain a modicum of transparency.
All formation commanders, with an odd exception, were quite open to taking my advice and recommendations. This is possible open only if they have confidence in the Public Relations Officer/spokesperson. For establishing that confidence the PRO must be active and have his eyes and ears open to whatever is happening and have a finger on the pulse of the media and public of the region concerned.
Once this confidence is established, as and when considered appropriate, interaction between the formation commanders and the media should be arranged. For this the media has to be assured that the formation commander is going to be open but that everything he says is not meant for quoting.
What can be quoted should be clearly explained. It should be noticeably clear to the armed forces that good hospitality alone cannot assure good or positive reporting. The stand or policy of the service concerned should be sound.
Do not expect positive reporting if the service concerned is at fault on any issue or not transparent or interested only in projecting the commanders. And also, do not expect that good wining and dining will produce good copy from all, because those whose owners/editors have a contrary agenda, they will regardless.
To succeed as a spokesperson in environments like Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, calls for sound knowledge of the armed forces, the country and its military history, professional capability, and a determined effort of reaching out to the media, with a reasonable amount of transparency. It also calls for developing a ‘nose for news’ and communication skills.
On reaching out to the media, successful counter insurgency operations and incidents which I was disseminating in Imphal to the local media, I tried to send the same to Guwahati and Kolkata also. Similarly, while in Guwahati, I would try to send the same reports to Kolkata and even New Delhi.
In the 1980s-early 1990s this was not quite easy as the telephones I functioned with were still the field “ghumatoo” pieces. The only other resource was faxing from the local telegraph offices.
I am fortunate that my efforts bore fruit. In the process of the meaningful management of disseminating info, very often I walked the tightrope because it was at variance with short-sighted responses of the government’s machinery-a combo of Defence Ministry and head of DPR MoD-my RO, ironically- being from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (MIB).
I was truly clear in my mind about my keeping the interests of the Army/ whichever other organisation I was covering like Assam Rifles, Air Force, Border Roads Organisation and sometimes, even Border Security Force under the command of Army and the interest of the nation as the foremost.
It is indeed ironic that the Defence Ministry officials were not always on the same page as the Army in what all and how much and how to disseminate information.
Q: Do you feel that the media should play an active role in today’s information warfare environment? If so, what role do you believe the media plays in IW and in moulding public perceptions on national security issues?
Ans: Late General BC Joshi believed that media can be a force multiplier if dealt with properly. If not, it could be a force degrader, which must be avoided/prevented. Perception management must be done diligently and in a coordinated manner by the services and ministries like the MoD and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) along with the MIB and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Q: As someone with extensive experience dealing with the news media from the services side, do you feel that the average journalist assigned the defence beat truly comprehends the technical intricacies and sensitivity of defence & national security issues? If not, what can be done to address this?
Ans: Journalists are supposed to be knowledgeable on the subject they are covering. Some are and some are not so. And then they may be representing owners who have their own agenda which may not always match the organisation being projected. It again calls for hard work by the PRO and sometimes, guts and moral courage.
Q: Despite India having a uniquely complex defence & national security environment, requiring a detailed understanding why do you think there are a lack of dedicated reporters and adequate training centres and programs for defence reporting?
Ans: MoD DPR organises training capsules for media. It used to be once in two years. It should be every year, which was implemented at some stage, but one does not know if it still continues to be once a year.
Q: Do you think the Indian media is insensitive towards issues concerning the tri-services by? Do you feel that grievances of service members are not adequately highlighted? Should such grievances be highlighted?
Ans: In recent years there have been times when the plight of adversely affected military personnel has been highlighted and yet there are cases which get overlooked by media, sometimes because it does not suit their owners/editors.
Q: What shortcomings or grievances in the military would you want the media to highlight?
In recent years one major point is that revision and raises in pay and allowances of Indian Police Service (IPS) and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and even civilian officers serving in organisations like Military Engineer Service (MES) have caused an imbalance in command functioning as some appointments, ranks which are junior professionally claim higher status owing to their pay drawn.
Other issues are some new ideas and policies on armed forces pensions related to amount of service and early retirees - if implemented are going to cause chaos. Such anomalies must get highlighted.
Q: In your opinion, does the establishment pressurise journalists reporting on national security issues? Would you agree or disagree with the view that there have been attempts to suppress or otherwise sanitise reports from conflict zones in India?
How would you respond to the view that certain sections of the media are becoming unofficial mouthpieces of the Armed Forces?
On the flipside, do you feel that the media is being leveraged by both state and non-state actors to compromise national security? Are certain publications becoming mouthpieces for hostile forces?
Ans: Both are true. In totalitarian or dictatorship states media is slave to the government. In democracies it is different. In the Indian democratic scenario, there have been elements or even some agencies which have been supporting anti-national Indians or even Indian political parties which after losing at the hustings have been trying to please anti-India neighbours/adversary/enemy countries.
Q: Where do you stand on the age old ‘Truth vs National Security’ debate? How do you feel concerned stakeholders on both sides should tread in this regard?
Ans: Today’s utterly twisted politics of some Indian political parties has already compromised or even caused harm to India’s security.
Q: What advice would you like to give media personnel, to further improve media-military relations, and what advice would you like to give Armed Forces personnel to further improve media-military relations?
Ans: The openness that we had practiced during the Kargil conflict/Operation Vijay and also quite often in J&K, before and after, has been very conspicuously missing since whatever has happened in Eastern Ladakh from May 2020 onwards. This time the Government and Army have shared much less than earlier.
Access to media has also been much less. In view of China’s and Pakistan’s track record, intentions, tendencies, and further plans everything must be done to maintain psychological pressure on China and Pakistan through media.
(Col. Anil Bhat, a published writer, strategic analyst and former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson, can be contacted at [email protected]. Views expressed are the respondents own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mission Victory India)