Kargil was the first war which Indian correspondents covered by going to the front and Army had to handle the situation on the battlefront. This led to serious deliberations over the role of media during war time
Many news media experts believe that embedded journalism provides a more accurate story of a war when compared to the traditional approach of news gathering via military briefings prepared for the pressThe changing landscape of media in the 21st century and especially in the current decade has forced Governments the world over to rethink their relationship with media. The relationship—always tense and adversarial—had some well-defined parameters within which it operated. Any discussion on the role of media in governance and national security was based on a set of debates about its effectiveness and the fact that media was seen as a necessary watchdog on the functioning of governments. It had a peculiar edge. Governments tried to hold on to information as tightly as possible and the media tried to dig out secrets that governments tried to suppress. It was a straightforward equation. The adversarial relationship was acceptable and well-understood.
On the other hand, traditionally national security has always been viewed through the prism of combating external threats and meeting internal challenges. Use of force for protecting the core values of a nation—in Bharat’s case its democracy, diversity, and tolerance—has been defined as national security.
But of late, the discourse on national security is undergoing a subtle transformation. The scope of national security has been widened. It is no longer confined to counting force levels or just matching military power with a neighbour. Now, experts talk about a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted approach to define National Security, including the use of media, psyops (psychological operations), perception management and a well-thought-out outreach to the people.
Media Relations and Information
Kargil was also the country's first television war and one in which the Indian Army had to handle the media right on the battlefront This has been a learning experience for the Government, the Armed Forces and the media. Neither the Northern Army Command nor HQ 15 Corps nor the lower field formations had media cells which could cater to the requirements of the press corps. This reveals an obvious lacuna which must be plugged. The Army has decided to revive and upgrade its war correspondents' course at the College of Combat, Mhow. The media should avail of this opportunity so that there is a cadre of trained war correspondents at any time.
—The Kargil Committee Report
Media and Security
Traditionally, we in the media have looked at national security from the narrow prism of hard military power, simply because media more than anyone else loves wars and conflicts. As a famous editor in the United States (US), Michael J Oneill had famously said: “It is well known that media are more devoted to conflict than to tranquility, and that war is routinely defined as news, while peace is not. What is good for the world, in other words, is not necessarily good for the news business."
Coming to Bharat specifically, in the first 15 years after Bharat attained Independence, the Bharatiya media was generally conformist. Since Bharat was in the nation-building phase, media was supportive of the effort as far as possible. So very few anti-establishment views were articulated in that phase. But the debacle in the short but brutal war with China in the winter of 1962 was a game changer not only for the establishment but also for the Bharatiya media. The shortcomings and wrong decisions at the policy level were so blatant that the Bharatiya media was forced to sit up and review its pro-establishment stance.
Indeed by the time, the 1970s dawn the Bharatiya media had started focusing more and more on military issues, thanks to big international events like the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971 or the peaceful nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974.
Today, it is almost compulsory to have dedicated journalists reporting on various ministries like Defence and Home, traditionally considered the bastions of national security. But even today, we are stuck in covering day to day activities rather than looking at larger issues in these ministries.
In a detailed study on the military-media relationship, a US Army War College researcher came to a conclusion: “Prior to the Vietnam War, the American press had generally supported national war efforts and the national leadership with positive stories. The Vietnam War was the first time that reporters reported on American units that lacked discipline, used drugs on the battlefield, and had US soldiers questioning war aims while the war was ongoing. These stories, though factual, were viewed by the military as ‘negative.’ Moreover, the uniformed leadership viewed these stories as a major reason they were losing the war at home while they were winning the battles in Vietnam.” (The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk? by Margaret H. Belknap, United States Army, 2001)
By the time the US was ready for the Gulf War in 1991, it had learned its lessons well. The military had judged the needs of the media and also worked out the ways to control the flow of information in its favour. As Belknap said, “Operation Desert Storm “was the most widely and most swiftly reported war in history.”
To Report the Operations
The Americans went on to further refine the concept of embedded journalism in Afghanistan, but in India, it is still a halfway house. There is no official embedding as such but the Indian military takes reporters on official guided tours to various facilities and events, fully on government expense. So, most of the reports are episodic, event-based in nature.
There is another kind of arrangement that exists between the media and the Bharatiya military. Reporters travel to border areas or insurgency-hit areas where the Indian army is deployed in large numbers. The Army then ‘facilitates’ their visits, shows them around, briefs them about the tasks, talks about the difficulties and achievements and then reporters write about or broadcast what they witnessed and understood during the trip.
It is a ‘loose’ arrangement, but the only one that comes close to the ‘embed’ arrangement in a semi-war situation. I say semi-war since the Indian army is continuously involved in counter-insurgency in Kashmir and the north-east in a no war no peace situation.
Old-timers in Bharat, however, recall that in 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, select reporters did travel with the Indian military. Indeed, an All India Radio journalist is famously in the frame of an iconic photograph of the Indian general accepting the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani POWs at the end of the 1971 war! In the most recent war in Kargil over a decade ago, there was no formal embedding but most of us who reported that war, interacted closely with the troops and many times depended on their support for sustenance in the war zone. Volumes have been written about the synergy between the media and the military in Kargil and its contribution in whipping up a patriotic fervour across the nation that time but all of that was happenstance, not design.
Currently, there is an intense discussion on in the higher echelons of the Bharatiya military on how to deal with the media at large and whether to have a policy that will allow embedded journalists in future conflicts.
So is embedded journalism or traveling with the military good or bad for journalists? Many news media experts believe that embedded journalism provides a more accurate story of a war when compared to the traditional approach of news gathering via military briefings prepared for the press.
In contrast, with this perspective, however, many other broadcast media specialists believe that embedded journalists who travel with military units become too emotionally bonded to the troops after long periods of time and will, therefore, lose objectivity in their news reporting.
The 21st century is marked by an abundance of information. In previous years, dominance was achieved through rationing information, exercising information control, censorship and propaganda. Such methods are not practical or prudent in the contemporary world. There is a constant increase in the number of sources of information which cannot be muzzled and have to be managed. The security forces, therefore, will have to focus on balancing openness with security to exploit the power of the media, both tactically and strategically. Media strategy can longer be the job of the public relations officer alone but must be seen as a command function. Security Forces will have to think of ways to function outside the vertical silos if the media war is to be won.
Media practitioners—both traditional and those in the fifth domain—will necessarily continue to focus on national security as they view it. It is up to decision-makers and national security mandarins to exploit their presence, reach and influence to suit to their own aims and objectives. Therein lays the trick.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and is the founder and CEO of BharatShakti.in, a specialised website on defence)