On December 8, 2020, a report filed by Hindustan Times reported on a Group of Ministers’ meeting, which worked on a new strategy to “overhaul its media and public outreach” as well as “detailing ways in which criticism can be addressed and positive message can be spread wider”. The report, since then, has been accessed by multiple media organisations and a larger picture began to appear on that matter.
The group includes Cabinet ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, Smriti Irani, S Jaishankar, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, and Union ministers Kiren Rijiju, Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur and Babul Supriyo. The group made its first presentation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who guided the group with his insights and gave vital inputs, the report noted, according to HT.
However, what has received media attention is its approach to dissent. “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 report quotes Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
News magazine The Caravan said, “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 sought to improve the image of the government in the media, and there is no ambiguity in how it proposed to go about it.”
That’s not all; the report, which The NationWide has accessed, goes on to quote the ministers referring to online news portals that have taken a particularly critical stance of the government. “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. Our core media intervention is not getting enlarged,” Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said as per the report. He also goes on to ask, “Frequent interactions with media are good but they all ask for some extra information. How that can be provided?”
Interestingly, the report quotes participants saying quite the perplexing ideas in even more problematic overtones. Apart from the ones given above, here is one: “The right-wing parties of other countries need to be roped in so that some common ground could be found,” says Anurag Thakur, Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs. Here is another: “Planned communication is good for normal times but to create Pokhran effect, let Nitish Kumar or 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,” says S Gurumurthy.
Meanwhile, one Nupur Sharma says, as per the report, that online portals like Op-India should be promoted. Moreover, another individual Abhijit Majumdar recommends the government to help and re-tweet Op-India’s content. This individual would also go on to refer to ALT News as propaganda and describe it as vicious. Interestingly, OpIndia and ALT India have been at a certain online odds, since both have been reportedly “busting fake news” published by the other. On the other hand, OpIndia has a certain reputation for being a right-wing media.
“Lot of outside money is spent on OTT platform for diluting the nationalism and denigrating Indian culture” and “Wikipedia is trying to re-write history; It has clear bias; Serious note and action on the same should be taken” are some of the other recommendations from Abhijit.
However, there are problems with referring to the document as well. Hartosh Singh Bal — the author of The Caravan article mentioned here — has already gotten a negative reaction from two individuals who were mentioned in the article. The report mentions one Nitin Gokhale as saying, “Journalists can be colour coded: Green – fence sitters; Black– against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists.” The second mention is of one Ashutosh, who was, as per the report, one of the media persons who met with minster Kiren Rijiju at his residence on June 23 and 26 last year.
However, following the publication of the article, Nitin A Gokhale — founder of BharatShakti.in — took to Twitter to say, “Utter lies. That’s it. Please be prepared to face legal consequences…” to Hartosh’s tweet. Journalist and former Aam Aadmi member Ashutosh took to the microblogging site to say, “Caravan story mentions Ashutosh as one of the journalists who met govt reps to chalk out a plan to neutralise critical media. ITS NOT ME! Neither I was ever contacted nor I was there. I DONT KNOW WHO IS THIS ASHUTOSH (sic).” To this, Hartosh replied that the names have been reproduced as they are in the report where they are mentioned without institutional reference. “In this case there is no clarity on which Ashutosh is being referred to, in other cases the naming is more detailed and clear,” he added.
The report goes on to mention the observations made by the participants in the meeting with Kiren Rijiju. “Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Narendra Modi and are ideologically with the party”, “Government should give the supporting background material to 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”, and “The interactions with foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive.” The problem is that none of this still encompasses the tip of this iceberg. The Caravan report goes on to say that they tried contacting the journalists mentioned in the report, and those who did comment, “distanced from the observations attributed to them”.
There are other prominent suggestions as well. Smriti Irani suggested tracking “50 negative and 50 positive influencers” and “We should identify the themes on which Government is attacked and prepare proper and timely response.” Hardeep Singh Puri said, “Productive and supportive journalists who are not working now can be roped in.”