Military-Media Interface: Changing Paradigms New Challenges
Ajay K. Rai, Research Fellow, IDSA
The relationship between the military and the media is changing, propelled by certain momentous developments, in all the major democracies of the world, including India. This scenario of change, which has evolved over a number of years, has shifted the balance towards the media and in the process, thrown up a new series of challenges to the military; challenges which the military must address if it is not to enter future operations, both in conflict and peace, at a significant disadvantage. The role of the press in reporting on the military is likely to be enhanced, and the military is increasingly to be fixed in the media focus. In such circumstances the military must take a long hard look at how it interfaces with the media and make the necessary changes (the necessary adjustments by the media not ruled out) to re-establish a relationship in which the military and the media will be able to successfully work alongside each other to the benefit of both and for the society at large. After all, the media have an important role to interpret the military to society and society to the military.
A definite indicator of the new dynamics of change in military-media relationship is the inexorable trend towards discarding the usage of the term 'Media Management' which was till recently being freely bandied about and had become recognised military jargon. It has now dawned upon the military that the usage of this term needs to be curbed as it gives an impression that the media can be 'managed'. The media in general strongly resents this term. At best the media can be understood, trusted, befriended and possibly co-opted. Hence the need to replace this term with 'Media-Military Relations', 'Media Policy' or 'Media Projection' which implies the manner in which the military wishes to deal with and project its image to and via the media. 'Media Projection Plans' though very important in actual war or Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) operations, are equally relevant during peace.
The Indian media, though now operating in the global arena, have so far not been able to use, to the desired extent, this advantageous situation for authentic, objective and substantive treatment of matters pertaining to defence, while the Indian armed forces have yet to fully grasp the power and potential of the media in projecting their correct image.
Factors For Change
This change in the relationship, although growing over the years, has in more recent years been hastened by a couple of factors. The first of these factors is the demise of the immediate threat of 'total war'. The Second World War represented the last total war. Since then, the only real threat of total war has been the Cold War, the demise of which has wrested the final potential threat from the world scene for the foreseeable future. The experience of the post-war years suggests that the nature of war has changed.1 The potential for mutually assured destruction in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, has made the major national confrontations of the past too costly. In the future, the major international and regional powers will pursue their ambitions through limited conflicts.
These limited conflicts, almost by definition, will be so constrained in order to avoid uncontrollable escalation, that they will pose no threat to the survival of the state. In this changed environment the citizen's conditions of obligation would have diminished from automatic support for the state in the common interest, to a state of discretionary choice. In the absence of any direct threat to national survival, the citizen will have the luxury of making up his or her own mind on the merits of any conflict.
No longer assured of the automatic support that prevailed in the time of common threat to personal and national survival, the state will have to work to enlist and maintain the support of the citizen in order to prosecute war. As a result, public opinion has become a major factor in the successful pursuance of limited conflicts.
The media, in turn, assumes greater importance than in the past, for the media too have been liberated from the supporting role allocated to them in previous wars of survival. As Woodward put it "The media potentially becomes a free and independent player with the capacity to influence both the conduct of hostilities and particularly through its impact on popular sentiment, the direction of government policy… It has the capacity, and the media would say, the responsibility to analyse critically not only the government's objectives but also the military strategy being pursued."2
Yet the media have been slow to rise to the challenge, limited as they are by the need to compete, the cost of coverage, lack of specialist expertise and audience expectations.3 Analysis of media coverage of the Falklands, Grenada, Panama and the Gulf shows that some elements of the media were too willing to be swept along with the tide of enthusiasm and to act as cheer leaders for their own forces. The only saving grace for the media, and for the public's right to know, is the lesson of Vietnam. That is, that if the military should meet with any major setback, or if the conflict should become protracted, then carefully controlled channelling of the media will be of no avail.
Another important factor is the speed and the global reach of the new international media. The capacity for independent assessment and reporting has been reinforced by an increasing independence in communications and dissemination of information through the global media. The capacity for independence increases the potential for the media to break loose from military constraint. Also, globalisation has conferred on the media formidable power to influence national and international public opinion. Large news corporations like CNN or BBC have global impact and today can be found in the offices of nearly every senior government and military official throughout the world. As one columnist noted, "In times of crisis or high drama America automatically turns to CNN. In bars, airports, aircraft, hotel lobbies, corner shops and anywhere else where people might pause and watch, the news pours out in a steady, heady stream."4
Today the 'ubiquitous;' media can bring the graphic realities of conflict almost instantaneously into the public's living room bringing the conduct of conflict to the scrutiny of everybody, not just the military and politicians. In our country, last year, the STAR and ZEE channels transmitted the triumphs and tribulations of the Kargil conflict as well as the high drama and tension surrounding the hijacking of IC 814 right into the homes of the people across the country and the region. For the first time people realised that these events were not something which were being tackled by just the military or diplomats in some far-off lands, but were happening right in their precincts, in their minds.
The global reach of the media could well allow coverage by other nations not bound by considerations of operational security. Such coverage, including input from the Internet, would be beyond sanction, and fully able to feed footage into a global system allowing rapid relay to both combatants and their home nations. While belligerents could place restraints on media in the field, censorship would be almost impossible to maintain in the face of expectations in the home nation.
The third development which has considerably enhanced the influence of the media via-a-vis the military is the technological advances in media recording systems and near-instantaneous communications. Satellite transmission of television and telephone, and radio transmission of video, have been the major innovations. Besides the satellite borne voice and data systems, underdeveloped areas are being increasingly linked into Remote Area Network Data Systems (RAND), which allows data and voice to be transmitted over standard high frequency radio capable of being linked into national and international circuits. Other advances in compressed video signal and computer driven and enhanced satellite (Inmarsat) CODEC technology using a 50 kg terminal now enables a real-time seaborne transmission from anywhere on the globe. Work has been done on multibeam single antenna capable of picking up signals simultaneously from upto 20 satellites.
Most networks use truck-borne satellite transmitters which are routinely flown into remote areas by transport aircraft, as was done to provide coverage of the anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War. Media interest, however, lies with miniaturisation because, despite their technical independence, large systems remain dependent on the military for access to airports and operational support. It is now possible to equip reporters with a free-man crew-borne portable solar-powered system that can be packed into three large suitcase sized packs. This will soon be reduced even further. The independence and mobility conferred by such systems restricts field censorship to physical sanction. This was demonstrated during the Gulf War, when Peter Arnett of CNN used direct satellite telephone voice communications to report from Baghdad.
Nearer home, during the Kargil conflict, Indian media persons used Iridium and satellite phones, and carried cameras right upto the gunheads to their great professional advantage. So, the consequences of a reporter equipped with a ultra lightweight camera, able to transmit live on to a news network from anywhere in the world, cannot be understated and has brought the media to the dawn of what Nik Gowing has described as 'the tyranny of real time news', which significantly diminishes the military's ability to limit or censor media's output. He has further said, "This is the new reality. The media beaming back, uncontrolled before even the first signals are being received in national capitals".5
Media And Peacekeeping
Besides these three vital factors, it needs to be added that the peacekeeping operations under the UN aegis have added a new dimension to relations between the military and the media and takes the role of the media into unfamiliar territory.6 For the media, balancing national and international interest poses a singular challenge when support for UN objectives demands a high level of national commitment. High costs can be incurred maintaining forces in areas which are remote from the contributing country. The circumstances which lead to peacekeeping also are rarely conducive to rapid restoration of order and withdrawal of the peacekeeping force (as has been recently seen in Sierra Leone). As with limited conflict, a population will withdraw its support for national political and military objectives when a conflict which does not impact upon that population directly becomes protracted or when casualty lists are increasing. For similar reasons, any tendency for peacekeeping to deviate from its expected objective will quickly bring a deployment under public scrutiny.
The American peacekeeping experiences with Somalia and Haiti underline the fact that media loyalty is first and foremost a national loyalty and a reflection of the fact that audience loyalty is also national rather than international. In the recent case of Sierra Leone, the British media heavily backed the British intervention in the imbroglio as the country's national interest happened to coincide with the general interest. Not surprisingly, the Indian peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone has been dragged into an avoidable controversy. The allegedly critical remarks by the UN Secretary General about Gen Vijaya Jetley, commander of the peace force, have been blown out of all proportions by interested groups lobbying with a section of the media.
New Challenges And Implications
Having discussed why the military-media paradigms are undergoing changes, it is important to analyse the various challenges and implications of this emerging scenario for the military, the media and public opinion.
For the military the new challenges are extremely crucial as they have an operational effect. To start with, the military contend with the problem of 'news being where the media are".7 The reason being that failure to do so will lead to the military becoming victims of rash or ill-informed public opinion at home or unbalanced international media reporting which has the potential to substantially destabilise the military situation.
What is the problem all about? The media see only the events where they are and in doing so, focus and sometimes even create news. "People blithely imagine that journalists are where the news is. Alas, not so; the news is where the journalists are."8 Or where they point their cameras, thus highlighting the inability of the media to disclose the whole truth at any time but only that part of the truth which reporters themselves are able to see. To cite a famous instance, a prominent British journalist Martin Bell in April 1993 filed a news report from a tiny Muslim village (in Bosnia) just north of Vitez called Ahmici, which had been completely destroyed. The report shook the world, mainly because the sheer power of the short television report transformed this distant war and brought the gory details of genocide into the viewer's homes.
Another aspect of news being where the media are, is that most often the warring factions, in conflict situations, have been prone to putting on 'shows' for the benefit of the media. At Turbe, an inter-ethnic boundary just north of Vitez (Bosnia) the media could be guaranteed some action footage during the 'lean' periods simply by ensuring that the warring factions were aware of a news crews presence as UN troops patrolled the border. During the Kargil conflict, it was said by some media experts about various TV interviews wherein jawans on the battlefront talked aloud about patriotism and the country's, honour, that those were nothing more than stage managed shows.
The power of the media to influence government policy, which is often described in Western parlance as the 'CNN factor', is another important challenge confronting the military. In the case of high intensity conflicts the media exercises such influence by bringing international events to the public's attention and placing them on the national agenda. The deployment of British troops in Bosnia in 1992 represents a prime example of this role of the media in moulding government policy. The media bombarded the public with harrowing tales of death and destruction in Bosnia ensuring that, as the 'Economist' headline put it "Terror reigns in Bosnia. Let no one claim he did not know".
In our context, the sustained media exposure on the intelligence failure, lack of equipment and requisite clothing during the Kargil conflict, has to a considerable extent, energised the government into taking the corrective measures. The tremendous media pressure during the high drama of the hijacking of IC 814 virtually coaxed the government into taking the diplomatic initiatives with the Taliban government and secure the release of passengers. Much earlier, in the immediate aftermath of India's 1962 debacle, then President Dr S. Radhakrishnan had to, under great public pressure, insist on the resignation of then Defence Minister Krishna Menon.
The impact of the media on making or influencing government policy, however, should not be overstated. The information provided by the media does go into generating public opinion or pressure, but the power of the media, in real terms, lies in highlighting situations not solving them. Their area of influence has consequences at the grand strategic rather than at the operational or tactical military levels and as such it is something which politicians rather than the military should seek to influence. "TV's unquestioned ability to provide a contemporaneous, piecemeal, video ticker-tape service must not be confused as it usually is, with a power to drive policy making".9
The military commander deployed on operations in conflict situations has today found himself more vulnerable to the pressures of the media than ever before. Any conflict in present times, by its very nature, is a highly complex affair both in its causes as well as its conduct. Bosnia was a prime example of the complexities of a three-sided war, with shifting alliances overlaid with the complicated peacekeeping framework carried out by a large number of forces drawn from a diverse group of countries. Media persons, especially TV journalists, operating in such complex circumstances, have little more than a few seconds at their disposal to unravel the threads of this highly confused situation and then edit and simplify it in order for it to be palatable to the general public. Such reporting, which is an integral part of the "crash and burn" work culture of a journalist, may distort the reality of the situation in the public's mind and can often lead to a lack of understanding of the military's role.
Today it needs to be realised by the military that gone are the relaxed days of recorded interviews and the censor's red pen. A commander's every action can be instantly beamed back to millions of armchair 'jurors,' who judge him from a minute snapshot, depriving him of any real opportunity to explain the situation. His words are ephemeral and once uttered cannot be recanted. He is a small fish in the mighty media ocean, mostly unprepared and untrained for the tyranny of real time television. As Lt Col Bob Stewart, Commanding Officer of the Cheshire Regiment, admitted, "Commanding in Bosnia could be a real nightmare when it came to handling the press. It seemed we would be bound to make lots of mistakes and the press could have a field day".
This is the challenge the military must now face. It must seize such opportunities to put across its own view of the situation, and 'shape the battlefield'. To achieve this, the military must take a proactive media stance and have the right people with right training and right orientation in place to make such responses. For the military, a few 'clever images' will never compensate for a coherent explanation in summarising the nuances of a particular issue or situation.
As regards the question of operational security, the military will argue that they are best placed to judge what is, or is not, of operational value to the enemy and that violations of its operational security may risk the lives of soldiers and the success of operations. They will also argue that if a force is deployed by a democratically elected government, then the troops involved are entitled to security of operations; that the best source of advice on the level of danger facing reporters covering a conflict is the military itself. In fact, military professionals are trained from the start that the sole purpose of the military is to fight and win the nation's wars. All other missions are secondary to that. In order to accomplish that mission, secrecy in the planning and execution of military operations is ingrained in the mindset of the military culture. To violate the premise is to violate the very sanctity of life.
Journalists, on the other hand, argue that the military most of the time strenuously err on the side of caution while disclosing information and that the public does have a right to know the way in which the military discharges its business on their behalf. They argue that transparency and promptitude in sharing of information are the need of the hour.
Fortunately, for both the media and the public, the technological advances during the mid 90's and the increasing globalisation of news reporting mean that the news reports can now be transmitted live to a raft of international news networks. In this new environment the control of media product is realistically not feasible. Thus in the face of global, instant news the British Armed Forces have concluded, "Any military control over the media in wartime would have to be institutional rather than physical, and based on cooperation rather than exclusion or coercion".
This working practice was followed, for instance, by commanders during the Gulf War, when they gave privileged briefs (doctored?) to 'pool' journalists on future operations. A member of the press pool Kate Aidie recounts her experience thus: "I think if you go into a war situation in which your own troops are involved; and you want to report in detail what those troops are going to be involved in, you have to do a deal; and you must do it publicly".10
Such a change has compelled the military to place greater trust in the media than before, and has fundamentally altered the working relationship between the military and the media. To reflect these changes, the military needs to review its doctrine as well as its modus operandi.
'Bad publicity' is yet another challenge which the military has to tackle. More often than not, the military goes into a tizzy whenever the media happen to criticise its policy or conduct. It is often alleged that the media is obsessed with negative and disruptive happenings, that they highlight only the failures of the military thereby damaging the latter's image in the public eye.
Such over-reaction will make the military reactive, and as such criticism must be handled with an open mind and a sense of equanimity. Lt Col. Bob Stewart who attracted close and prolonged media interest by virtue of the fact that he commanded the first British troops into Bosnia in 1992, has made a very balanced comment, "We tend to think that even the slightest criticism made by the media is a disaster. Ninety five per cent of an article can be glowing and yet we torture ourselves over five per cent of criticism. That is madness of course but we still do it. I am afraid we have to get used to accepting a little bit of rough with the smooth."11
Putting things in their perspective, in the Indian setting, Maj Gen, Arjun Ray theorises, "With each passing day, Indian media is becoming more competitive and consumeristic; and perforce more investigative, with greater quantum of critique and commentary by professionals. The media is also asking more questions than ever before. We have to shut up or put up with it… News is like any consumer commodity and people are hungry for sensationalism! Media caters to the taste of the readership and government and security forces must appreciate what therefore makes a good copy. They need to come to terms with this fact of life".12
In the context of bad or negative publicity, the military must realise two things. Firstly, journalists are not sycophants and will seize the opportunity to highlight the shortcomings of the military as it sees them. Secondly, this is inherent in the situation itself. Only unusual events or happenings that are considered to be of concern or of interest to a large number of people in society are news. Hence, the focus of news media on negative events. Another related dimension of this is the watchdog function that the media is supposed to perform in the society. As a consequence, the press tends to highlight failures more than success. Exposures of failures are the staple diet, so to say, for the press. It just cannot afford to spare them because in doing so its own credibility and survival are at stake.
Thus now there is a case for a more frank and open relationship with the media in which the military accepts a degree of healthy and justifiable criticism. Such criticism is unlikely to be too unpalatable to military commanders. Greater training would enable them to consider their presentation of difficult news.
Lack of media objectivity is yet another major challenge before the military as it has a clear and direct impact on military operations. In a Low Intensity Conflict or Peacekeeping Operation, biased media reporting is always highly damaging, since one side will often seek to exploit such reporting, whilst the other will seek retribution. Throughout the conflict in Bosnia there has been considerable criticism that 'less than objective' media reporting has sought to influence the policies of various governments. The international media coverage of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been condemned by Lt Gen Michael Rose, a former Commander of UNPROFOR, as "downright misleading much of the time and mischievous at best". Rose felt that the media too often took sides and distorted the truth on account of emotional involvement, usually with the Muslims. Often as a result of such media backing, the Muslims, according to him, would break a ceasefire or launch an attack confident that the blame would be ascribed to the other faction."13
Why is it that the media lose objectivity in such situations? Even the best of reporters, who have spent a great deal of time in an area of conflict, become deeply involved in the horrific events on which they are required to report. Also because of the difficulty in moving from one party's area to another in a conflict, journalists have tended to spend the major portion of their time reporting from only one party's area. In doing so, some of them come under the effect of what is called the "quasi-Stockholm Syndrome effect" and over sympathise with the side with whom they were cohabiting.14
Although all news media persons swear by objectivity in reporting events, there is nothing like absolute objectivity. They are also human beings reporting events concerning other human beings. As such, their own experience and subjectivity in reporting facts as they see at times contributes to errors in reporting. Such errors in reporting are human errors. Another source of error is usually the partial availability of information due to various reasons at the time of filing a news story. The reporter being faced with the deadline for filing his story is usually left with no choice but to base his story on the information available to him till that time. This may be accepted as part of professional hazard.
Due to the great pressure of time under which he has to function, the journalist might at times make mistakes in the process of making a selection as to what to report and what to leave out, how much prominence in terms of placement and display be given to the selected items for reporting. In a way a journalist functions as a researcher, as an investigator and as a judge at the same time deciding upon the happening of the day. In the process there might be genuine errors of judgement. But if misreporting or overplay/underplay of an event emanates by design, it is bad journalism.
Such reports should not be allowed to go uncontested by the military in conflict operations. It prejudices any peace processes which are ongoing and usually leads to substantial belligerence from the aggrieved side. The military is therefore bound, as part of its military operations, to counter such reports. In such circumstances the military must be prepared to execute proactive media operations, in order to redress such 'mistaken' or at worst' deliberately mischievous' reports.
The aforesaid challenges, which tend to adversely affect military operations, notwithstanding, there are occasions when media reporting can be a considerable advantage to the military. As a military strategist once said, "the media can be a very useful adjunct to our armoury—and there are no rules of engagement we have to comply with before using them".
The media support to the Indian military operations against Pakistan in the Kargil conflict went a long way in ensuring the approval of the international community of India's stand on the LoC and other related issues. In the pre-Dayton peace agreement days of Bosnia, UN commanders at all levels spent large parts of their time asking the various warring factions to make local peace agreements, only to find that they were breached almost immediately. Here the power of television had a profound effect as commanders were very reluctant to be filmed making such agreements and then breaking them subseqently. The media recordings of the agreements were sometimes the only records in Bosnia. Being held accountable in the forum of world opinion can occasionally be a powerful means of persuasion, but agreements made on camera are more difficult to break.
The media can thus be beneficial to a military campaign provided a military commander is smart enough to forge the appropriate professional relationship and reap its benefits. After all, the news, emerging military-media relationship is not a zero-sum game, but one in which both parties can gain immensely through mutual understanding.
To respond to these challenges the military can no longer afford to resort to the traditional tool like the 'pool' system and censorship to control media reporting. The basis of this control has generally been through accreditation into a 'pool' in which the media are given supervised access to the battlefield and the military, in exchange for the media agreeing to present their product in certain ways. Such direct methods of control were effective in the past due possibly to either geographical factors or military danger. The recent experience in Bosnia, unlike the ones in the Gulf or the Falklands Islands, has suggested that the 'pool' system in its current format is inappropriate to future LIC/Peacekeeping Operations.
There are however more indirect ways which might tempt journalists to look more closely at self-censorship. According to security experts, future Peacekeeping/LICs are likely to take place in parts of the world where a civilian infrastructure is either limited or has been undermined by the conflict. Transport, food, accomodation, communications and editing suites together with privileged access to the military, would provide a substantial enticement to the media and give the military a limited extent of say over them.
Therefore in the new environment, self-censorship would seem to be the best step forward, by putting the onus on the journalist on the spot and his editor who must ultimately answer the desires and tastes of their viewers/readers. Experience has shown that any attempt by the more serious media outlets to be over-critical of a military situation evokes penalties in the form of a loss of audience.
Implications For The Media And Public
The implications, and consequent challenges for the media are quite pressing. The problem is that while the military has acknowledged the problem and has tried to set in motion some considered policies, the media emerges from the case studies (carried out by Peter Young and Peter Jesser) as unprepared and bedevilled by the concerns of competition and cost. Even specialist organisations such as CNN tend to respond to situations rather than prepare for them. Few news organisations maintain the levels of expertise or organic defence knowledge which would allow them to compete with the military on near equal terms. Despite the media industry response to the restrictions imposed during Grenada and Panama, and the critique by organisations like the Freedom Foundation of the manipulations of the media during the Gulf War, there is no organised, specialist defence lobby within the working media in any of the major democracies. Apart from the recently set up Australia-based International Defence Media Association, there is no organised specialist international lobby able to present an unified and independent view to tackle the dominance of the military.
The implications for the public's right to know are no less significant. The challenge arises because the public is largely unaware of the degree to which coverage of limited conflict is restricted or distorted, and because they have not been educated to exercise their increasing democratic freedoms of choice. There remains a widespread perception of a duty to back the nation's armed forces. It is an attitude reinforced by governments in their attempts to enlist and maintain support through demonisation of the enemy and calls to patriotism. The people also are susceptible to what they can appreciate as commonsense appeals to operational security and the safety of the media. As a consequence, intellectual protest based on the citizen's freedom to choose whether to support their government's position on a conflict, in the absence of any threat to national survival, is denigrated as being unpatriotic and ideologically based.15
Government's attempt to cash in on the lack of community awareness of the right, and the need to judge a conflict on its merits if often aided to a large extent by the media which tends to reflect prevailing opinion. Even if the media were to adopt a more objective line, the early polls in any limited conflict tend to overwhelmingly favour the government and military.
The Indian Scenario
Amidst these changing parameters and challenges of the media-military interface, the state of affairs in India is unsatisfactory. After the Pokhran II tests and the Kargil conflict, the media coverage of defence services and national security issues have certainly looked up, but that still leaves much to be desired. There are apprehensions on the part both of the Press and the Services about each other's role and their contribution to governance and public opinion. The military authorities do not trust the media persons to the extent they should, while the media persons are not adequately informed and knowledgeable in the affairs of the military. The outcome is that the media projection of the armed forces is lacking in the quality of perception as well as the extent of coverage.
Why is the Indian military wary of the media? One of the main reasons is historical.16 India's defences were manned prior to August 15, 1947 by what was essentially the British occupation force. Apart from the usual needs of security, the big divide between the rulers and the ruled was far more pronounced in matters military than civil, an obvious manifestation of which was the cantonment concept. The soldier, and proportionately on a smaller scale the sailor and the airman lived in a world apart part from which the civilian population, except at the level of domestic and mess servants and the grooms for the ponies, was carefully excluded. There was no question of British rulers wanting to build bridges between the military force of the Empire and the Indian civilian population.
The Second World War brought an abrupt change in the prevailing approach with the realisation among the rulers that civilian assistance and active cooperation was essential to win the war and to get the defence services (still overwhelmingly officered by the British) accepted as the necessary instruments for achieving that end, which was projected as a struggle against fascist aggression equally harmful to India and the Allies. The new policy line gave birth to the Directorate of Public Relations and the establishment of a corps of war correspondents (like D.R. Mankekar and others). The DPR continued as a limb of the Defence Ministry of independent India. In its wider functions it is expected to promote substantive relations between the defence establishment and the media. Unfortunately, it usually follows a stereotyped course of communication by sending out press notes and conducting sponsored visits. The need for deeper media briefings at various levels is not on their agenda.
Because of this historical background for the communication gap between the military and the media, the information on defence matters has come to be treated as a 'holy cow'. An important case in point is the bureaucracy's obstinacy in not making public the Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 debacle and the Arun Singh Committee report on defence expenditure. Let alone these documents, if one speaks candidly of various aspects of a country's defence the charge is that this betrays national security interests by giving information to the adversary. Any frank criticism of defence policy brings one's patriotism into question. The opposition in Parliament is content to criticise everything but when it comes to defence it generally holds itself lest it be dubbed unpatriotic. The result is there is hardly any worthwhile discussion on the defence budget, defence production, defence technology or any other important aspects of the matter. To cite the International Security Digest published by the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London," the Indian government has always shied away from a public debate on matters pertaining to security and foreign policy. Even when it comes to debate in the Parliament, the people's representatives seeking information are fobbed off with vague replies or with the standard phrase that it is 'not in the national interest to provide the information sought'. Since the Indian press is free, there is always a debate but it takes place after the government has taken its decisions. Then it is of little use".
The military has for long been obscured by the security syndrome of secrecy, talking in hush hush terms or not talking at all of defence. The tendency to resort to excessive secrecy on grounds of operational security is often confused with the security of the government of the day and certain individuals. The military commanders often mention orders and instructions like the Special Army Order (SAO) 15/S/81 and the Army Rule (AR) 21 to prohibit contact with the media.17 In effect they are not 'firmans' and in no way bar interaction with the media, they only lay down guidelines which should form the basis of this interaction. Thus what is required is a positive interpretation of these orders. But there have existed clear orders that defence services personnel are not to communicate to the press any matters connected with India's defence or its defence forces without "Central Government permission". Thus "good" officers have had to refrain from media contact.
Of considerable impact is what the 19th report of the Estimates Committee of the 10th Lok Sabha says, "A culture of excessive secrecy has inhibited free and wider debate in the country about issues concerning national security. Governments or those authorities, more particularly vested with the responsibility for national security are prone to give away as little as possible on the tests of need to know. Public and Parliament are, however, increasingly concerned with accountability, cost effectiveness and policy options and demand the 'right to know'. The media, mirroring society, finds itself in a vice".18
Making his submission before the Press Council of India committee on defence coverage, a retired Army Chief commented, "The bureaucracy whether in uniform or civilian clothes and politicians in power find it more convenient to prevent awkward questions being asked than in explaining what might have been poor management or errors of judgement. In nine cases out of ten, when national security interests have been pleaded for denial of information, the real cause has been prevention of embarrassment to the establishment. Information is needlessly classified at higher levels than necessary and almost everything is classified, restricted or above. There are no penalties for over classification; only for failure to protect information."19
This over classification of information serves to keep the domestic public opinion ill-informed on security matters. This also poses the danger of disinformation and news manipulation by vested interest at home and others such as arms' merchants and foreign interests. While the people remain in the dark, the whole world gets to know about the state of national defence through its intelligence network, satellites, military sales and transfer of technology. The April 1997 report of the Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence makes an interesting point, "Defence Five Year Plans were made available to the Planning Commission to which barring the media, the entire government machinery, including an LDC, has access, Stranger still, foreign armament manufacturers and through them, journals like Jane's defence manuals and institutions like the International Institute for Defence Studies, London, and SIPRI, Stockholm, come to know of procurements and planned acquisitions under the plan. Obviously, this information is also available to our enemies. Despite this exposure abroad, which ultimately finds its way to the Indian press through western agencies, government virtually treats Parliament, the press and the people of the country as 'security risks'.20
In fact, a combination of powerful interests both within the government and outside have allowed this situation to persist.21 The party in power, the bureaucrats and the senior officers concerned with acquisitions have their own vested interests. The CAG reports on the services have brought out glaring instances of irregularities in expenditure on infructuous projects and inexplicable cost escalation running into hundreds of crores. For example, the West German submarine project which had an initial estimate of around Rs 150 crores, ended up with a final cost projection of about Rs 400 crores. And no explanation has been given for the delays, completely throwing out of schedule the delivery of these submarines.
There are big business houses who too have been playing a leading role in acquisition of arms and weapons and siphoning off commissions to their foreign accounts. Defence deals are aided and abetted by an army of retired bureaucrats and service personnel, who operate independently or function as consultants or as agents of business houses in India and of armament manufacturers abroad. It is an open secret that a senior retired Admiral had a definite role to play in the acquisition of West German subs and the MTU engines for the MBT project. Win Chadha was the agent for the Bofors deal.
Be that as it may, it would be unfair to blame only the military and defence establishments for the unsatisfactory projection of defence matters to the public. The media organisations themselves are responsible for the mediamen's limited interest in defence matters and consequently their limited knowledge of the subject both at the policy and operational, levels. While the Indian papers and magazines have specialists to report on political, economic, scientific or even sports issues, it is dismaying that most of them (except a few national dailies) do not have specialist defence correspondents. By and large there is no visible cadre of defence correspondents in the country. The result is that specialisation is missing. Like any other technical subject, defence needs intensive study, and a defence correspondent must do more than report a visible physical event, must understand and analyse the forces behind the event and provide the necessary perspective to readers and viewers for proper perception about the events. He/she has to have knowledge not only of the structure of the defence forces, but also some information about strategy and tactics.
Because of the present ad hocism with regard to defence coverage, the media is relying quite heavily on retired personnel and bureaucrats. Here two things need to be kept in mind. First, among these experts there could possibly be some who have their own axe to grind. There could be some vested interests who would highlight only specifics which do not make the public wiser or contribute in any manner to national security. Second, the contributions from outside the media would not suffice. Defence/security now extends to the wider security environment; regional developments; disarmament/nuclear factors; technology, changing international alignments; subrosa activity through terrorists; infiltrators; intelligence operations. There is need for a broader understanding of these factors and their interactions.
The national media has perhaps an element of balance, but there are serious doubts about the kind of reportage appearing in the regional press. The regional press representatives have little or no time, nor any inclination for a proper appreciation of defence matters. In fact, a major drawback in the Indian media results from the fact that very few, if any, of the mediapersons have a Service background. Unlike their Western counterparts they have not seen national service. There is no content related to defence or the forces in the syllabus of various courses of journalism being conducted at various centres in the country. The result is a situation of ignorance, especially in the younger breed of journalists.
Attitudinal And Institutional Reforms
This being the prevailing scenario in India, even as the media-military relationship is rapidly acquiring new dimensions, what really needs to be done is to make it possible that both the press and the services could tackle to their mutual benefit the emerging challenges and opportunities. The answer lies in both attitudinal and institutional reforms.
First and foremost, the military must be much more transparent and prompt in its dealings with the media; they must shed their entire attitude about holding back information, which is a colonial hangover and a spillover of the 'official secrets mentality'. Keeping secrets is no longer possible now when the modern communication systems are instant and real-time. Credit must go to the late Army Chief, Gen B.C. Joshi, who had the courage of conviction to recognise the media as a force multiplier and stressed the need to make the fighting arms more open. The General's assertion in 1993 was in a way the precursor to re-opening of the doors of the Defence Ministry which were virtually closed by then Defence Minister in 1987 in the wake of the Bofors payoff controversy. It was left to his successor Gen S.R. Chaudhary to take it up forcefully and give it concrete shape, spelling out a code for his field commanders to follow in their relations with the media. The advent of Gen V.P. Malik seems to have augured well for the media as he has gone on record to affirm the role of the media as a force multiplier in all situational conflicts whether they be of low, medium or high intensity. But the rules and culture have yet to alter.
Stressing greater transparency in regard to defence related matters, the Press Council of India has emphatically declared that public support and national morale are powerful force multipliers and in this context, the people have the right and the need to know much more than what they are vouchsafed today, though there might be certain constraints that might govern defence information policy.22
These constraints apart, there is no denying the fact that a greater flow of information would serve better the larger needs of national security. To ensure this, a detailed review of classification of norms and a process of de-classification of information is expeditiously called for to avoid perpetuating the people's ignorance about the country's defence needs. What needs to be classified are operational plans, the standard of preparation of weapons and equipment, and future plans. The revolution in information technology and a commitment to democracy dictate the need for people to understand both security challenges and responses. They must know and be convinced about the 'cause' for which the nation stakes its fortune. It is something of a truism that CNN contributed towards the US success in the Gulf war. Finally, with the establishment of UN Arms Transfer Register, which India has supported, arms acquisitions, initially from abroad, are to be declared. Security must therefore recede before this requirement.
There is an imperative need to sensitise the military to the emerging media environment.23 There are basically three elements to it. First, there is no such thing as niche information. The compartments of information into command, public or niche group information is becoming increasingly blurred. Information campaigns must be targeted at all groups. Second, in a global village, information ought to be both a principle of war and of conflict resolution. And with more information empowering the individual, power now vests with the people. Third, the new environment is engendering a new universal morality, and by implication, a new media morality which does not respect old social and professional taboos and national borders like their predecessors.
Besides this attitudinal reform, a major revamp of the Directorate of Public Relations (DPR), which acts as a link between the services and the media, is a must. It has to become a genuine and dynamic public relations organisation and not remain content with issuing 'bland' handouts riddled with officialese and conduct media parties to ceremonial functions. It has to acquire the ability and resources for gauging public opinion, conducting opinion research and taking proper anticipatory action.
The status of the Director of Public Relations is extremely relevant, as he/she should be a person of sufficient standing and seniority to have sat in important decision-making meetings, so that what the spokesperson says is convincing and authentic. The Director is an officer of the Indian Information Service and his rank was recently upgraded to the equivalent of a Joint Secretary in the IAS or Maj Gen in the Army. Despite this elevation, the DPR still comes under the control of JS (G) in the Ministry of Defence who has powers to overrule all or any proposals emanating from the DPR. The Director has not been authorised to give briefings on operations in J&K, and disturbed areas of northeastern states. Nor can he give any information to the press regarding procurements, DRDO projects or developments in the neighbourhood like missile tests by Pakistan. Thus the very purpose of the elevation is being nullified.
The authority of the DPR should be matching that of the JS who heads the External Publicity Division. He has two Director level officers working under him. He also sits on important policy meetings and thus can conduct briefings with authority on subjects like armament acquisitions, missile tests, strategic relationships with major powers and so on. A fairly definitive indication of JS(XP)'s authority was evident during the Kargil conflict when he was allowed to hold daily briefings for the media alongwith an official each from the Air Force and the Army.
Another problem is that of selection of PROs, who work under the DPR. Uptil 1992, there was a three member committee, comprising JS (G), Principal Information Officer and the DPR, which selected officers for posting to the directorate. This practice has been abandoned and postings are made on an ad hoc basis and changes often take place without giving notice to the press. This selection committee needs to be revived because far from posting experienced and knowledgeable persons from the Army, Navy and Air Force, the respective HQs preferred to send officers with virtually no knowledge or flair for PR or no thorough understanding of the Services themselves. These postings carried no value in the career chart of the deputed officers, who stood little or no chance of getting promotion.
Previously, PROs, before postings, were given the benefit of familiarisation training of about six weeks, which included attachment with news agencies or leading newspapers. There used to be a curriculum for such exposures. This practice, which has been fading out over the years, should be imparted a new impetus with the would-be PROs being given insights into the working of the media, understanding their needs and operational compulsions and so on, besides being given media orientation courses at institutions like the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.
In some concerned prominent quarters the suggestion has been made that the directorate, which is currently a wing of the MoD, should be placed under the respective chiefs of staff. Till independence the DPR was under the Army. It is argued that with the DPR once again becoming a part of the services, there would be smoother execution of the media projection policies.
An innovation since 1996 is the establishment of the Army Liaison Cell which has virtually taken over the task of providing information on operational matters. It is headed by a Brigadier at Army HQ in South Block who functions directly under the Vice Chief of Army Staff and hence enjoys better access to all formation commands in the country, which the DPR does not have. In a way it is an encouraging development, but the protocol between the Cell and the media should be clearly defined in the larger interest of defence media coverage.24 Also, the Cell needs to be relocated as it is housed in a prohibited area to which the media has no easy access.
Devolution of information dissemination system should be the key to the military's interaction with the media. At present there is little interaction between the staff and the media at the command, corps and divisional level. Any press release which has to be issued is required to be cleared by successively higher authorities. It may come as a surprise to many that even at formation/unit level one is not clear as to whose staff function it is to deal with the media—General Staff (GS) Branch or Adjutant's (A) Branch. Thus when it comes to ceremonial occasions such as raising days, it is the A Branch which issues press releases, and when it is an operational matter it is the GS Branch. There is therefore a need to designate an official army spokesman at the level of command, corps, divisional and independent brigade headquarters. These spokesmen will act as a single-window agency for military-media interaction.
As regards the question of ensuring more in-depth and comprehensive orientation of journalists on defence matters, the policy of 'catch 'em young' should be followed. Right at the level of degree or diploma course in mass media at the premier centres in the country, there should be substantive portion as part of the regular syllabus on defence journalism which should not include the specific skills of writing but also the nuts and bolts of the working of the three services and the various defence establishments. The faculty should be drawn from the academia, services, defence research organisations and the media.
The editors and the management of media set-ups should allow a few select correspondents to focus on defence and national security matters. They should not be put under pressure to churn out stories everyday or to take up other 'beats' in addition to defence, thereby diluting their expertise; they should be given the scope to take their time to do in depth stories as and when required. To add substance to their output, besides making field visits, they should also be encouraged to undertake intensive research studies on related issues. After the Pokhran II tests, there has been a resurgence of national security consciousness, and as such, this area needs focussed attention by the media.
There is need to train different levels of media professionals, both defence correspondents and analysts. It should be possible for a few select journalists to be permitted to attend a part or whole of the courses at the Staff College or the National Defence College. "Live-in" visits to training establishments of the three services, such as those in Hyderabad and Bangalore, would be helpful. Significantly, the media are not welcome to visit any of the premier Regimental Centres, where actual training is given to jawans. These centres have over the years expanded their excellence, as for example the EME, who are equipped to handle the entire gamut of weapon systems of the armed forces.
Periodic briefings by Command chiefs, Service Chiefs etc. would go a long way in keeping the media updated on the country's security. More budgetary information should be made available. There could be an annual budget briefing including services, defence production and DRDO. This will help Members of Parliament and generally the country as well and produce better debate.
Finally, it is imperative for the media to maintain its credibility among both the civilian population and the military. Jingoistic drumbeating as well as exaggerating the threat of war clouds or loose talk of the foreign hand should be scrupulously avoided.25 Loss of credibility gives rise to rumours so that more and more people turn to the foreign media for information which should normally be available from one's own country. This has an adverse effect on the morale of the people.
In the final analysis, it must be understood that the military and the mediamen are not mutually exclusive, and hence a positive relationship between them can only help both. More so, both have an equally vital role to play in the development of our nation, and hence, there is a need for recognising and respecting each other's responsibilities and for generating interaction. While it behoves the media not to indulge in sensationalism and ensure fair, substantive and unbiased coverage of defence matters. The military must be able to benefit from the role of the media as a force multiplier, whether in war or peace, especially in LIC operations.
The key to success in this relationship is understanding the other side and being in a position to endure a few setbacks and frustrations along the way.26
Equally important is the realisation that the natural tensions between the military and media will always exist. The realistic approach is to educate each side, as much as possible, on the peculiarities of the other's culture. Appreciation of the challenges each must face can go a long way towards mitigating tensions, but will never eliminate them. Nor should they be eliminated. The journalist, as the 'watchdog' of our constitution, must maintain a healthy skepticism in the coverage of the military. And the military must exercise reasonably sufficient security precautions in performing its duties to ensure the troops going in harm's way, when they must, with every possible advantage over the enemies.
The Press Council of India, in one of its reports, has admirably said, "the media has an adversarial role to the extent that it questions authority, all authority to look at the other side. This must be understood and a relationship of creative tension accepted as a democratic necessity. For the rest, they (the military and the media) are partners in trying to build a better society, a stronger nation."
1. Peter Young and Peter Jesser, The Media And the Military, (UK: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997) p. 291.
2. B. Woodward, The Commanders, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991) p. 278, p. 26-7.
3. Young and Jesser, p. 272.
4. Ben Mackintyre, "CNN Breeds Nations of News Junkies," The Times, June 3, 1995.
5. N. Gowing, "Conflict, the Military and the Media—a new Optimism", The Officer, May/June 97.
6. Young and Jesser, pp. 192-203.
7. Major PWD Edwards, "The Military-Media Relationship", RUSI Journal, October 98.
8. M. Bell, In Harm's Way (London: Hamish & Hamilton, 1995) p. 59.
9. Nik Gowing, "Real-Time Coverage from War: Does it Make or Break Government Policy", Bosnia by Television (ed. By James Gow et.al).
10. British television interview with Kate Aidie, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for BBC transmitted on July 19, 1991.
11. R. Stewart, Broken Lives, (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 324.
12. Maj Gen. Arjun Ray, Kashmir Diary (New Delhi: Manas Publications, 1997) pp. 83-85.
13. B. Carr, "General Rose reports from the Bosnian Front", Defence & Foreign Affairs, April 95, p. 24.
14. Maj Edwards p. 46.
15. Young and Jesser, p. 289.
16. Prem Bhatia's background paper at a seminar on "Military & Society" organised by the USI & Editor's Guild of India, October 20-21, 1986.
17. Brig AJS Sandhu, Combat Journal, December 95.
18. 19th Report of the Estimates Committee of the 10th Lok Sabha on the Ministry of Defence, presented on August 20, 1992.
19. Press Council's Report titled "Pen and Sword—towards more openness", submitted in October 1994.
20. Report of the Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence published in April 97.
21. V.C. Natrajan & A.K. Chakraborthy, Information War in Defence Strategy, (Noida: Trishul Publications, 1998) pp. 6-7.
22. Part of the recommendations made by the Press Council in its Report 'Pen & Sword'.
23. Maj Gen Ray, pp. 82-83.
24. Natarajan & Chakraborthy, p. 192.
25. B.G. Verghese in his presentation at the seminar organised by USI and Editor's Guild
26. Col Barry E. Willey "The Military-Media Connection", Military Review, December 98-February 99.