Former Resident Editor, Gomantak Times and Defence Journalist, Shashwat Gupta Ray spoke to Mission Victory India on Military-Media relations in India, in part-3 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: My experience in dealing with armed forces has been a mixed one. It always depended upon the kind of information I was looking for. Of the three services, I have had the best working relationship with the Indian Navy. It has been incredibly supportive.
I could do, in fact I still manage to get clearances from Western Naval Command relatively easily for visiting Goa Naval Area installations to do my stories. I have managed to even interview the Flag Officer commanding Goa Area couple of times within a span of three months.
This is something that would rarely happen in the Army or Air Force. Getting to interview the Divisional General Officer Commanding or the Corps Commander is a rarity unless it is in Kashmir or North East.
The Air Force is also very opaque, has lot of communication issues. If the story topic is remotely negative, then the three services simply shut shop. Even then, Navy’s media engagement is far better.
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: I think the media has a huge role to play in the era of information warfare. It can present the whole picture as a neutral party. It can help demystifying a lot of critical but jargaonised subjects of armed forces. But there on ground there are several teething issues. Most importantly more often than not, the top hierarchy wants to get favourable news published or shown in the media platform.
Any negative news is perceived as insensitive and a threat to national security. Any negative news gets pushed under the carpet as a security issue. It becomes difficult to get stories from the authorities, even off the record.
In absence of authentic information, or lack of understanding gravity of the subject, journalists tend to misreport and portray a picture which is contrary to reality. This causes even more harm to the armed forces image, which widens the gap further.
The military establishment needs to stop distrusting the media and take it under its wings to help disseminate the right information and no hesitate in responding to media’s query if there is some negative incident, especially in civilian areas.
The anti-social elements thrive on negative publicity, especially emanating from civilian areas. Social media is a bigger threat to national security than Weapons of Mass Destruction. This has to be negated using the help of formal mass media platforms.
Q: Can an argument be made that active participation goes against the media’s impartial watchdog function. How would you address this view?
Ans: No, I do not think so. The media can play active role without losing its neutrality. The media’s job is to report with objectivity. If there is a positive development like the Army building schools or setting up hospitals for the civilians it should be appreciated and highlighted.
Reporting positive news does not mean that media is being controlled by the military. Similarly, if there is a negative development it too has to be reported as it is without any slant.
That does not mean that media is anti-military or a threat to national security. Like any other professional organisation, media too has its own way of functioning. Be it reporting positive or negative news, it should be done without any malice. Till the time this dictum is followed there is no reason to believe that media is ceasing to be neutral.
The press is just a messenger of the information not the creator. The military should accept and appreciate this fact and find out means to work with the media in a cohesive manner without doubting its credentials or trying to dictate the proceedings.
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: Yes, true. Inexperienced journalists handling defence beat can be problematic. It is not easy to comprehend the critical aspects of defence reporting. A slight mistake in reporting can have serious consequences. Media organisations do not attach too much importance to defence reporting as a beat.
Political, crime and civic beats assume more importance than Defence, especially in non-disturbed areas. So, the seasoned journalists consider these non-defence beats more important than defence, which is considered as “headache” as the military establishment is looked upon as non-cooperative and “difficult” to get stories.
A reporter has the pressure of filing at least four stories a day, which is easily available from non-defence beats. It is difficult to get even one story a day from the military authorities. Hence inexperienced journalists are given Defence beat. But things are changing. Editors are now giving due importance to Defence reporting. They are being encouraged to pursue this beat.
The Ministry of Defence has an annual Defence Correspondents Course (DCC). This is a month-long orientation programme held under the aegis of MoD. Around 30 journalists are selected out of few hundred applications from across the country.
They are then taken to the forward base areas of the tri-services to give a glimpse of how the armed forces deal with the enemy – logistical challenges, topography, and various other aspects. They are also given theoretical knowledge on the functioning of the tri-services. This has been a huge hit amongst media persons.
It is considered as a very prestigious course as post completion the journalists get a certificate from the MoD, which adds lot of value to the career prospects of the journalists. They are in a much better position to analytically report defence matters.
However, my suggestion is this programme should be also extended to senior journalists like Bureau chiefs and Editors, even sub-editors. Ultimately the Bureau head and Editor are responsible for assigning, selecting, and clearing news reports. If they too undergo a shorter course of two weeks, then there could be a better apprehension of the defence issues. This will then help bringing out security issues in a refined manner.
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: Yes, they should be taken up. But the media needs evidence and comments, preferably on record. Most of the times the media is approached without any evidence. While the grievances maybe authentic but media has its own checks and balances. It is a gospel for reporters to report on such sensitive matters based on evidence, even if the aggrieved wants to remain anonymous.
Then on the basis of documents or any audio/audio-visual evidence the journalist can seek the Editor’s nod to go ahead with the story. Otherwise, it only becomes mere allegations, which if not substantiated with evidence, can make them liable for legal action from the authorities.
While the media is all for taking up grievances of its soldiers, it has to be supported with proper evidence. If the aggrieved helps in procuring the necessary evidence, then one can report on such issues. One cannot use the media’s shoulder to shoot their own gun.
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 media reports? To what extent would you such perceived muzzling of the press exists in India?
Ans: If the information is authentic and there is enough evidence to back it, then it is not possible to muzzle the truth, unless the management succumbs under the pressure. But due to social media, it is exceedingly difficult nowadays to hide the truth. It manages to get leaked out. Sometimes news is given by the official sources but unofficially because they too want the news to be out but run the risk of losing their jobs.
It is up to the knowledge levels of the journalist and the trustworthiness of the sources. The defence personnel also know very well which news should be leaked out discreetly so that it is used to their advantage. To play safe, the same sources when approached officially tend to neither confirm nor deny. But the information should be accurate.
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: For all its shortcomings, our media is still very patriotic and nationalist in nature and by no means will become “mouthpiece” of any anti-national organization. The term “mouthpiece” is very vague actually. Media is interested in its story, and more sensational it is in nature better it is because the dictum in news media is that negative sells.
Media industry revenue comes from third party organisation but depends on readership/viewership numbers. More the numbers (many times inflated) better are the chances of getting advertisement revenue.
However, it is also a norm in the news media to have all sides of the story. One must remember the fact that media is not a news creator. It is a news disseminator. The news is already created in way of a terrorist attack or some conflict in civilian area. What can be questioned is its presentation and treatment and whether the facts are in place or not.
Sometimes in the excitement to break a sensational news, sense of rationality takes a backseat. The latest controversy over Arnab Goswami’s Republic channel’s TRP scam and post-Pulwama WhatsApp chat leak or the coverage of 26/11 terror attack in the initial period are some examples.
Electronic media in India is yet to evolve and mature. With more than 300 news channels and over 10,0000 news publications in the market, the advertisement war will grow even more intense. In this mix you add news portals then the battle for grabbing the eye-balls of readers and viewers will turn more vicious. In the process content quality will be hit.
Unless the revenue model of the media industry undergoes a change the problem with content quality will persist. This situation then gets misused by anti-social elements like Maoists who feed on propaganda, mostly unknowingly.
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: In the truth vs national security debate, truth is always the casualty. It is in human nature to reject the truth as one remains in self-denial mode. This is extremely dangerous as unless one accepts the truth the corrective measure will never be taken, and this will mean that vulnerabilities remain.
The problem here is the repercussions of accepting the truth. Instead of a rational brainstorming for finding solution to a crisis there is more blame game.Every disaster is an outcome of collective failure. But instead of going to the roots of the cause, there is a habit of treating the symptoms by indulging in kneejerk reaction.
Invariably the fall guys are the junior leadership. Fearing persecution, the ground report is manipulated and then the exact truth never is never revealed to the decision-making authorities.
Once the truth is accepted in toto then the chances are that more pragmatic reaction will follow. Otherwise, this approach of finding scapegoats for failures – like the media – will only complicate the matters and the vulnerabilities will remain. Transparency is particularly important.
Intelligence failure is often cited as reason for many of the crisis - be it cross border incursions by enemy army, terror attacks etc. So, what has been done for strengthening our intelligence gathering and taking the intel inputs seriously for all these years? How many bureaucrats have been sacked due to their inaction? How many Generals have been punished? Let’s not shoot the messenger.
Truth and national security cannot be looked in isolation. Accept the truth and act sincerely towards plugging the gaps. The Kargil committee report still remains unimplemented. Had it been done, Galwan would not have happened.
National security is a not a theory that has to be debated. It is an attitude that defines the strength or weakness of a nation. We as a nation are not serious about national security in its real sense.
Q: Would you say that the office of theAdditional 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: The advent of ADGPI is of course a good development as it has succeeded in bridging the information gap. Especially its presence on social media has helped in real time availability of news alerts regarding the Indian Army. But then, ADGPI is an extension of Press Information Bureau, where the role is to give out information that the Army wants.
It is more a one-way information. It is not capable in handling difficult questions in case of any lapses. The ADGPI has to be prepared to take difficult questions from the press and answer their queries. Unless that happens, the stories will go one-sided and will be labelled as biased reporting.
Q: What advice would you like to give media personnel, to further improve media-military relations?
Ans: My first advice to media personnel is not to get overawed at the sight of uniformed personnel. They are public servants, who are paid from tax-payers’ money to discharge their duties. Their failure means wastage of public money. Every government establishment I answerable to the people. Secondly, read.
Journalists today rely more on WhatsApp forwards than spending some quality time in reading up books on military history. There are more books and authentic websites/YouTube channels by defence veterans and experts who have chronicled various aspects/historical events regarding the geo-political scenario in the country/region and world.
Reading of good literature always helps. Thirdly, make friends with dedicated veteran officers who are tirelessly working towards bringing about a positive change in the system selflessly.
Mission Victory India is the best example of it. Not all issues maybe of readers’ interest. But by following such campaigns/works regularly will help in comprehending the tricky issues of armed forces better.
Finally, it is always better to accept ignorance on a matter and make efforts in learning about it rather than making hypothetical statements that do not make sense. Learning is a continuous process. Have the appetite to learn and evolve.
Q: What advice would you like to give Armed Forces personnel to further improve media-military relations?
Ans: My advice to armed forces personnel is that do not treat the media as your foe. The media can be an able ally in fighting the Information Warfare if they are trusted and helped with right inputs. Be transparent. Send your able officers to attend capsule courses in news media. It is already happening.
Selected officers are sent to Indian Institute of Mass communication (IIMC) Delhi. Other than that, there should be regular informal interactions between the formation commanders and local media editors and Defence reporters.
On the lines of DCC that is conducted by MoD at national level, similar week-long courses or three-day workshops could be held at local levels. Former GoC-in-C Southern Command Lieutenant General A K Singh had taken the initiative of organising a three-day Defence Correspondents workshop in Pune in 2011.
This included theory sessions and visits to infantry battalion in Aundh and armoured corps Centre in Ahmednagar. Such initiatives help in bridging the information gap and strengthens defence and media ties.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Ans: The media and armed forces both are allies in the war against disinformation. Twain must meet. Both the parties need to trust each other and work in tandem, without interfering in each other’s functioning process. Both are as distinct as chalk and cheese. Hence you cannot dictate terms on each other.
Yet, both have important role to play in winning the Information warfare to ensure the country’s internal and external security. Internal security has direct bearing on external security. Kashmir, Punjab, and North East are best examples. Advent of social media has only complicated the internal security situation.
The communal political situation has made things even worse. We have to understand that muscle-power is not the solution to internal problems. Constructive public engagement using media as the vehicle will help in diffusing lot of flaring tempers. No war can be won without local support.
Local support cannot be garnered without involvement of media. So, both are complimentary to each other. Hence both sides should be on the same page and find a common ground on how to work towards a strong nation, rising above their petty differences.
More About the Interviewee
Shashwat Gupta Ray is currently the former Editor of Gomantak Times. He is the founder and content curator of the YouTube channel 'Uncovering India' and is a multiple award winning Defence Journalist.
He has over twenty years of experience under his belt and it was under his leadership that Gomantak Times won five excellence in journalism awards from the Goa state government: Three awards from Chief Electoral Officer Goa for promoting ethical voting in run-up to Goa Assembly polls in Feb 2017.
Three excellence in journalism awards from Goa govt for excellence in health and Art and Culture reporting in 2017 and regards Best Editor for National integration and communal harmony in 2018. Issues concerning the marginalized community – tribal, physically and mentally challenged persons along with communal harmony were given prominence.
Prior to his profile in GT, he was Assistant Editor at Sakaal Times, Pune where he won the Excellence in English Journalism Award from Maharashtra Govt in 2015 for Science journalism.
He was given the Excellence in Defence journalism award in 2013-14 and had extensively covered 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. During his time in Press Trust of India (Mumbai), he was given Best Corporate Story award in 2005 for a story on the Shipping sector, covering the outbreak of the Bird Flu in Maharashtra.
During his time in Tehelka (Mumbai) he reported on the Naxalite movement in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra and was the first journalist to expose Hindutva terror presence in North Maharashtra while investigating Malegaon blast and Nanded bomb blast cases.
A book Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India published by Pharos Media, has devoted one complete chapter to his story on Nanded blast investigation. He is an alumnus of Symbiosis College, Pune, and MS University Vadodara. He can be reached on email: [email protected], Twitter: @sgr_ray