Difficulties in disseminating defence information

January 13th, 2008 - 11:19 am ICT by admin  

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: Following is an article by Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao, Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India, and now Chief Editor, ANI. We do hope you will find this of interest to your esteemed publication.


ANI News Desk

By I. Ramamohan Rao

New Delhi, Jan 13 (ANI): The Central Information Commission has asked the Defence Ministry to have proper information policy concerning disclosure of vital information, especially in events connected with the engagement of our Armed Forces with the forces of other countries in theatres of war.

The observation of the CIC was made in response to an application from a correspondent of a national weekly who appealed against the Naval Headquarters decision not to disclose the results of an inquiry instituted into the causes of the sinking of the Naval Ship INS Khukri during the India-Pakistan War in December 1971.

Eighteen officers and 175 sailors manned the Khukri, which was commanded by Captain Mulla. Captain Mulla who went down with the frigate, was awarded the Mahavir Chakra posthumously.

The Naval Headquarters has refused to give the details of the inquiry based on the debriefing of survivors, as the recommendations are still on the basis of naval strategy, and it would compromise security, owing to the possibility of it becoming available to state and on state actors, which may be inimical to countrys security interests

I have had the opportunity of serving for over two decades with the Armed Forces as a Public Relations Officer, since the late fifties. The Army was a closed book those days and civilians had little or no excess to the cantonments where they were stationed. The practice had its origins when the Indian Army was a part of the colonial government and took its orders from the Commander-in-Chief.

Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra and the Indus since those days. The country has fought three wars with Pakistan and one with China. I was associated as a communicator in all the wars. Each war added to the experience of the Government in handling information concerning operations.

The Defence Ministry drew up operational publicity guidelines for the dissemination of information during wars in the late sixties. Journalists were also trained to be war correspondents and a detailed procedure was laid down to facilitate their reporting. The prevailing practice concerning the release of information is as liberal as that followed by many democratic nations.

Generally, during a war, information needs to be released as to the progress of the operations, giving details on whether the armed forces are winning or losing, the casualties suffered by them, and the damage inflicted by them on the adversary.

Correct information is required to be given out to maintain the morale of the country, the Armed Forces themselves and to affect the morale of the enemy. The impact is meant to be felt both within the country and the world over. Even information of an adverse nature cannot be concealed to ensure the Governments credibility.

In recent years, the communication scene has undergone a dramatic change. For example during the Kargil operations in 1999 the media covered many battles almost live and pictures were sent from theatres of war to television channels by satellite transmission. As of now, it would be difficult to keep the progress of operations under cover.

The country also has been a victim of proxy wars since the late eighties. The terrorist always tries to use the media as an ally to create the needed impact, and disseminate false information. They also make an effort to project that the people of the area are against the Government and gain their sympathy to causes promoted by the terrorist.

The main lesson learnt during the counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir as also in the north-east has been that it is always an advantage to give facts before the adversary can, and to give access to the media to directly interact with the people.

The dilemma for the Armed Forces has always been on how much information to release. They have to keep in mind the fact that our adversaries are keen to collect information about the Indian Armed Forces to plan their operations. The adversary wants to know the attitudes of the troops and the officers to the current conflict, conditions under which they operate, the preparedness and the relations between the people around towards the soldiers.

Such information is very important for the planning and conduct of psychological operations in aid of actual warfare.

The Indian Army had faced problems in motivating troops during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Initially, the Indian troops were airlifted ostensibly to assist the Tamils in getting a fair deal, but later, they had to fight the LTTE itself.

The American Armed forces were one of the most open as far as the media was concerned. The attitude changed after the Vietnam War experience, when gory pictures were seen in the living rooms back home in the United States.

During the Gulf War in the early nineties, only a limited number of media representatives were allowed to cover the operations on the frontline, and most of the reporting, was done through the briefing of correspondents at formation headquarters.

During the Iraq operations, the Allied Armed Forces have coined a new term embedded journalists. To have access to the scene of operations, the journalists agree to be embedded but the experience has been that the media has a compulsion to report the truth, sooner than later.

India does not have a policy regarding the declassifying of information of a sensitive nature after the lapse of a certain number of years. Even today, the Henderson-Brookes report prepared after the reverses suffered by the Indian Army in the India-China War of 1962 is still classified as SECRET.

In contrast, in the United States, records relating to the Johnson years (1964-69) have now become open to scholars. Also, in the United Kingdom, the records relating to the period relating to the pre-partition years are open. In India, documents relating to that period are still classified.

The recent publication Information and Security Where Truth Lies by Lt..Col. Anil Bhat (Manas Publications, Delhi, Pages 206) is a comprehensive work on the subject. Anil Bhat has had varied experience, having served both in the north-east and in New Delhi as the Public Relations Officer for the Army.

Bhat has also had the advantage of having studied in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis. The book also contains details of the organizations under the Government of India for charged with the task of dissemination of information.

One gets the feeling after going through Anils book that those seeking information on security matters will always have an uphill task ahead of them. (ANI)
I. Ramamohan Rao, Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India
E-mail: raoramamohan@hotmail.com

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