Frontier India Editor-in-Chief, and author of books ‘Foxtrot to Arihant’ and ‘Warring Navies - India and Pakistan’ spoke to Mission Victory India on Military-Media relations in India, in part-2 of this series covering views from both sides of the fence…
Q: How has your experience with the Indian Armed Forces been in your journalism career?
Ans: Varying. The Indian Navy used to be the most open towards the media followed by a distant Indian Air Force. The Indian Army bordered hostility most of the times. At times it was felt the media was a bigger enemy than Pakistan. Attitudes have since improved. The Navy is still the friendliest one. The air force and army are now a bit more open.
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: Ideally, the media should play the intended role of being the proverbial fourth pillar. It does have a responsibility towards the nation. It is open to interpretation and is guided by the founding principle of the particular media. Jan Chetna is a novel concept and the media has been playing the role for ages.
Q: Can an argument be made that active participation goes against the media’s impartial watchdog function. How would you address this view?
Ans: Supporting and or parroting the government line of arguments is definitely not a part moulding public opinion. The government must be questioned. The balance between Jan Chetna and impartial watchdog should be maintained.
Q: As someone with extensive experience dealing with the armed forces, 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: An average journalist is not a defence journalist. Most media organisations, other than the defence focused media, are unable to keep a dedicated reporter for defence alone. At the same time, majority of the readership does not understand the technicality or sensitivity.
An average reporter has a general sense on ‘how, and ‘how much’ should be presented to the general reader in a palpable manner. I would rate a journalist on their ability to convey the general intent to their reader as the factor for assessing their journalistic skills.
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 center’s/programs for defence reporting?
Ans: India does have her share of defence reporters who understand the security environment. There are adequate Mass Communication schools for journalism. The Defence Correspondents Course by the Ministry of Defence is an excellent course for sensitising the journalist.
I have seen some general beat journalists dedicatedly attending military events and covering them as per their readership. Of course, they have varied sense of understanding depending upon their experience and interest.
Q: Do you think the Indian media is insensitive towards issues concerning the tri-services? Do you feel that grievances of service members are not adequately highlighted? Should such grievances be highlighted in the public domain?
Ans: The Armed Forces is a huge organisation with own grievance redressal mechanisms. Sometimes, there are institutional issues like recruitment, equipment etc. The Sayahak/Batman system is a classic example of institutional issues. If the media reports it the Indian Army becomes sensitive about the coverage. If media does not report it then the soldiers loose. The Armed forces consider themselves as a proverbial ‘Holy Cow.”
I remember when I reported about Defence Research and Development Organisation products, I was told by retired armed forces personnel to not act as a cheesy salesman for thrashy products. My view was that Indian Armed Forces should induct the DRDO products in Mark 1, 2, 3 … statuses like the armed forces in US or Russia would do.
Q: Do you feel that the Security establishment does not cooperate with reporters covering defence & national security? Would you say that they actively impede journalists from doing their job?
Ans: The Armed Force’s Public Relation Officers are the nodal point for journalists. They are bound by their hierarchy, which is true for organisations in general. It is up to the journalist to cover their beat which is always challenging.
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? To what extent would you say such perceived muzzling of the press exists in India?
Ans: Such pressures are part of the job. Commercial sector does it even better through advertisement budgets. It is up to the media house to support their journalists in view of their survival. Media houses in India have various levels of survival skills and they support their journalists as per their strength.
Q: 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: I observe that the media is more pliant to government of the day and commercial interests. I have not noticed pro armed force or pro hostile forces media. Even the hostile media is usually hostile to the state machinery which includes the armed forces. I am not sure if there is a dedicated anti armed forces media.
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? Where does one draw the line? Should a line be drawn?
Ans: I think most news can be reported except the operating capabilities of the equipment which is different from the general capability of the equipment, current sensitive deployments etc.
Q: Would you say that ‘national security’ is often used as a convenient excuse to bury reports which might embarrass the government of the day, or the security establishment?
Q: Would you say that the Office of the Additional Directorate General of Public Information (ADGPI) has been a boon for timely reportage of issues concerning the Indian Army or a bane for defence reporters?
Ans: ADGPI is a good move for Indian Army PR. With social media available, more organisations will reach out the population directly. Army promotes its organisational point of view through ADGPI. It is not a substitute to the media. Journalists who are dependent on press release handouts will have to scale up.
Q: What advice would you like to give media personnel, to further improve media-military relations?
Ans: The Media exists to serve the people and not the organisations. Objectivity must be maintained.
Q: What advice would you like to give Armed Forces personnel to further improve media-military relations?
Ans: The Indian Airforce and the Indian Army can follow the Indian Navy example of engaging the media.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Ans: The ex-service men have a role in engaging the media for the benefit of armed forces.
More About the Interviewee
Joseph P. Chacko is a defence journalist and author of the books ‘Foxtrot to Arihant and Warring Navies – India and Pakistan. He is the publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Frontier India, an online media publication publishing news and current affairs. He can be reached on email: [email protected], Twitter: @chackojoseph. Views expressed are the respondents own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India.