Modi Govt's Digital Media Rules Framed After Ministers Wanted to 'Neutralise' Independent News

A group of ministers in mid-2020 set out a roadmap to “neutralise” the independent news media as it “generates a lot of heat”.

New Delhi: The recent move of the Narendra Modi government to ‘regulate’ digital news media to counter ‘fake news’ has likely stemmed from a roadmap chalked out by a group of ministers (GoM) in mid-2020 to “neutralise” independent news media as it “generates a lot of heat”, a leaked GoM document and a report in The Caravan have shown.

The news magazine, which reviewed the GoM report compiled after six meetings during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, states, “The recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which has come under criticism for excessive government control over digital media, are clearly in keeping with this strategy.”

News about the existence of the report and its key recommendations was first broken by the Hindustan Times in December 2020.

The GoM report makes at least three references by name to The Wire in which it notes the government’s inability to build an effective narrative against independent digital news platforms.

The news report underlines, “One of the core concerns of the (GoM) report has been voiced in an observation by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the union minister of minority affairs, ‘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 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 clearly sought to improve the image of the government in the media, and there is no ambiguity in how it proposed to go about it,” The Caravan emphasises.

Aside from Naqvi, the GoM comprised of four other top Union cabinet ministers – Ravi Shankar Prasad (minister of law and justice and of communications, electronics and information and technology), Smriti Irani (minister of textiles and women and child development), Prakash Javadekar (minister of information and broadcasting) and S. Jaishankar (minister of external affairs). The ministers of state who were part of the GoM were Kiren Rijiu, Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur and Babul Supriyo.

Also read: Editorial: A Mala Fide Attempt to Control Independent Digital Media

Together, in batches, they reached out to a set of largely pro-government journalists and influencers to collate their inputs for the report, essentially to address the government’s perceived ‘image crisis’.

The recommendations reportedly included a number of shocking suggestions, such as “colour coding journalists” as per their closeness to the government, offered by Nitin Gokhale, strategic affairs commentator seen close to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval; to use the “enormous power” of the government to “control them”, by Surya Prakash, who heads Prasar Bharti; bring about a “Pokhran effect” (perhaps akin to a surgical strike) by RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy; to “change the eco-system” and thereby “handle media hostility” and make use of allies like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik to speak positively about the Modi government. Interestingly, Gurumuthy says that though Republic channel has been promoting the government, it “is seen as a pariah. Therefore, we need a Pokhran to turn the narrative.”

Gokhale has since tweeted that the claims made in the Caravan report are “utter lies” and has threatened legal action. However, since the claims are present in the GoM report, it is not clear if he has formally taken it up with the government.

Extract from GoM report on communication

Irani’s suggestion is to put together a list of ‘50 negative influencers’ and tracking them constantly using the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre of the I&B ministry, and engage regularly with “50 positive influencers”. She suggested “engaging with journalists…who are supportive of the government or neutral”. Naqvi and Rijiju did just that and suggested that “groups should be made of supportive editors, columnists, journalists and commentators and they should be regularly engaged with”.

Prasad recommends using the services of a “few imminent academicians, VCs, retired IFS officers, etc” to “write our achievements and project our view point”. The report also suggests that MEA and the MIB must regularly engage with “foreign media” to create a positive image of the government outside of the country.

What comes out clearly from the report though is how the Modi government and its allied influencers and journalists look at certain digital media outlets. They feel that the government needs to make a calibrated move to control online media critical of it.

Sample this statement by Prasad, expressing frustration at the government’s failure to completely regulate the media narrative. “While we get insightful suggestions, it is not explained how despite being n Government, there is still a gap in the online media like Wire, Scroll and some regional media.”

He rues, “One core media intervention is not getting enlarged”.

Also read: In Sum and Substance, New Digital Media Rules Establish a Confusing Playing Field

A pro-government distinguished fellow at the corporate-funded Observer Research Foundation, Kanchan Gupta, suggests a way to address the minister’s concern, “Google promotes content or (sic) Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms. …How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into. …Online media generates much heat …We should know how to influence online media or we should have our own online portal with global reach.”

While one is not clear yet whether the government is acting on Gupta’s suggestion to restrict the reach of the digital news sites named by him through Google, his other suggestion seems to have been picked up.  The GoM has asked the MIB to promote pro-government portals. “Promote online portals – It is needed to promote and support online portals (like OpIndia) as most of the existing online portals are critical of Government.”

The editor of right-wing propaganda site OpIndia Nupur Sharma too was consulted by the GoM, and she suggested that her own website “should be promoted” by the government. Journalist Abhijit Majumdar calls the content of the fact-checking site Alt News, which regularly debunks misleading information propagated by the right wing, “propaganda”. He too suggests, “Help Op-India and re-tweet Op-India tweets.”

Though it is not clear yet whether the GoM’s suggestions to the MIB are already being implemented, what is increasingly seen is that OpIndia regularly accuses digital news sites like The Wire and The Print of publishing ‘fake news’ and goes to the extent of launching personal attack on journalists associated with these platforms, which the government sees to be “critical” of it.

Note: This report has been edited since publication to include Nitin Gokhale’s tweeted response.