While national security has taken a completely new meaning today and encompasses many spheres, such as food, water, energy, to name just a few, this writer is restricting the examples pertaining to the military. There have been occasions when news about the military has been brought to the notice of the public without any thought of its impact. Cases of corruption in the military, considered the last bastion of discipline, should and must be reported, but at the same time, it must also be brought to the notice of the same public, through similar prominence in the news, of the prompt action taken by the concerned authorities. This is almost never done, giving a wrong impression to the public and the military personnel in particular, that the issue has been brushed under the carpet, just as in other cases of corruption. Has anybody in any media, print and visual, ever given a thought to this aspect?
There is an urgent need for the media, more so the visual media, to observe self-discipline, ask mature questions of the politicians and officials, and report objectively and responsibly.
Another issue, sensitive to national security, is the subject of military readiness or new acquisitions. One wonders how does the media lay its hands on “Secret” or “Confidential” documents, or the proceedings of a meeting, and report them for the consumption of the public without a second thought, when the same documents, if reported by a member of the military, would invite strictures and punitive action under the Official Secrets Act? There are numerous examples, from the recent Pathankot/Uri attack and the aftermath of them, to the acquisition of aircraft and equipment, and the current holdings in service. Such information has an alarmist trend to it, giving an impression to the average person that the nation’s military is ill-prepared to take on an adversary.
There is an urgent need for the media, more so the visual media, to observe self-discipline, ask mature questions of the politicians and officials, and report objectively and responsibly. While wrong doings should not be suppressed, there is a definite need for some introspection before reporting on sensitive matters that could affect the morale of personnel and could also lead to the unwanted disclosures of military plans. State-authorized regulation is not the answer, but self-regulation through acquiring domain knowledge on matters of national security, is.
The Press Council of India, the existing regulatory body, needs to act on its mandate and wield the stick whenever required. Dr Aroon Tikekar, former editor, is quoted in the Outlook (05 December 2011), “When the media fails to evolve its own code of conduct, the first casualty is its impact on society….if the media starts enjoying power without responsibility, it can be a menace to all concerned”.
The Gulf War and the Kargil conflict brought the activities of the military in the field, to the living room. These conflicts highlighted that journalists cannot cover their ignorance while reporting on a conflict, with sheer enthusiasm alone.
Maroof Raza, a military man turned journalist, had said at the turn of the century, “Soldiers and journalists are not the most like minded people but in the 21st century they will need each other more than ever before” (SP’s Military Year Book 2001). The Gulf War and the Kargil conflict brought the activities of the military in the field, to the living room. These conflicts highlighted that journalists cannot cover their ignorance while reporting on a conflict, with sheer enthusiasm alone. One has to have a reasonable understanding of military affairs and operations while the military would do well to understand that “information is power” in this information age.
National security can no longer be simply classified as internal and external, for the police or the military to take care of. Some crucial factors that have a direct bearing on national security are education level, diplomacy, self-reliance, economy, development, and demographics. The media plays a very important role to bind all sections of society- a major factor to ensure national security.
The flow of information is key to participative democracy and public debate. As in the USA, the Indian Constitution asserts the fundamental right to information. However, not all information, especially related to national security, can or should be shared. For a country of the size of India, a large volume of information exists, quite a bit of which is generated by the hyper-active media itself. There is, therefore, a need to have a high degree of information management. This process is essential, both, within and outside the military.
Media and the Military
One accepts that information is power, especially in this ‘information age’. The media has the capability to mould national and international opinion and can be a potent force multiplier as was evident in the Gulf War and then in the Kargil Conflict- India’s first ‘live’ war. While the coverage of the Kargil Conflict was direct from the battlefield, it was evident that the media personnel lacked training and preparedness, and was just trying to ape the CNN. It revealed a lack of knowledge of the command structure of the Armed Forces and how responsibilities are distributed, not only in the military, but also within the national intelligence framework.
Military runs under tight rules and regulations. It works under a veil of secrecy, contrary to the requirements of the media, thus giving out an impression of officialdom…
With technology marching on at double pace, gathering real time information is not a major problem for the media today. The problem, however, is the collection of the information, sifting through it, separating the chaff, and then passing on the relevant information to the public; unfortunately, this is where the major shortfall is with a majority of the electronic and print media where quality is sacrificed at the altar of quantity.
Military, on the other hand, runs under tight rules and regulations. It works under a veil of secrecy, contrary to the requirements of the media, thus giving out an impression of officialdom, and a self-perception of operating at a higher standard than the society in general in morals, ethics, and general behaviour. The military is also perceived as a well-oiled machine, which can be relied upon to tackle any emergent situation, be it taking a child out of a sunken bore-well, or tackling the enemy on the frontiers. With such a reputation at stake, stories with limited, unauthenticated, and half-baked information, without an interaction between the military and media, quite often leads to a mutual antagonism between the two.
A clash between two institutions, one, which believes in openness, and the other, which operates from behind a cloak of secrecy, thus becomes inevitable. The press wants freedom and the military wants control. That there is a need for both the military and the media to get to know each other better is well appreciated by members of both communities, however, the media would not be in agreement with many of the restrictions that the military would has in place.
There has been little or no training imparted to military commanders in dealing with the media. Instead of being rankled, it is time that Generals, Admirals, and Air Marshals changed their mindset on dealing with the media.
To ensure a harmonious relationship between these two pillars of our nation, certain steps need to be initiated.
- Is there a trust between the two institutions? The MoD and the military need to carry out a check whether the media can be trusted and taken into confidence prior to launching a major offensive in a war or an operation in CIO/anti-terrorist operations. If the answer to that is no, and which in all probability is the answer, we need to apply some confidence building measures.
- Control of the media and censorship is a very difficult proposition, as the two are contradictory to the very foundation of the principle of freedom on which the media works. Self regulation has to be inculcated.
- There has been little or no training imparted to military commanders in dealing with the media. Instead of being rankled, it is time that Generals, Admirals, and Air Marshals changed their mindset on dealing with the media. Similar is the case for the training of defence correspondents.
- There is a need to promote active interaction between the military and the media. Young journalists should be encouraged to join the Territorial Army while officers on study leave or otherwise should be attached to the print and electronic media.
- Military commanders need to pay attention to issues of Public Affairs and Media Relations, rather than just focus on operational issues. Information needs to be made a Principle of War.
The reporting of the country’s progress, the foreign policy debates, the military modernisation, all need a media, which should understand its role in nation building.
Strong journalism is the very basis for accountability. Strong journalism, however, is not synonymous with sensationalism. The media must understand the nuances of national security for it to be able to play its role with responsibility. National security, even at the cost of repetition, is today not just military but a host of other subjects too, though military grabs the maximum attention. There are a range of challenges facing the country today, to cite just one, our need for energy, and hence the unhindered supply of oil and gas, from wherever it can be made available. This one need, is linked to the country’s foreign policy, which again, cannot be just the domain of the MEA.
The world is watching India’s development, and its march towards becoming an economic superpower. The reporting of the country’s progress, the foreign policy debates, the military modernisation, all need a media, which should understand its role in nation building. Suffice it to say that the media story in India at present, is as multi-faceted, as chaotic, as compromised, as cacophonic, and occasionally even as splendid, as the country itself. For India to be recognised on the global stage, transformation has to begin at home. What place better than within the media to start the process?