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Special Address delivered by Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.) at two-day Symposium on ‘National Security

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Image Courtesy: Defence View

Article No. 018/2018

The following is the full text of the Special Address delivered by Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director-C3S, Regional Director, National Maritime Foundation-Chennai Chapter, during the Valedictory function on conclusion of the two-day Symposium on ‘National Security & Media’ held by the Department of Media and Communication, SRM University on 13th March 2018.

First of all I would like to thank Professor Sridhar and the organizers for inviting me to deliver this talk during the valedictory function.  My own experience of the media while I was on the other side, was of trying to bridge the gap between the media and the Navy during many of my service postings in different places. There were many tricky questions and some of them could not be answered under the Official Secret Act (OSA). Thus as a service officer, one develops the ability to face the media and also strived to educate them on some of the special features of the service. Some years after retirement, I participated in the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) a state sponsored programme of the USA.

Coincidentally, the theme was “National Security and Media” which resonates with the theme of the symposium here in SRM University.

There were five of us and I was the only one with a defence background, three others were from the media and one was a Professor from Mumbai.  My second innings had started with ORF, a think tank and I had moved on to start another think tank, Center for Asia Studies (CAS) along with Dr. S. Narayan who was also the Research Head at that time in ISEAS, Singapore. Let me briefly tell you about the visit to USA for the IVLP. The theme was chosen in the backdrop of the Mumbai terror attack and there was an effort to engage the team in wide ranging discussions with media houses, think tanks, policy makers and NGOs. So we had visits and discussions with CSIS, White House, Pentagon officials, Border control agencies and media houses. What came out clearly even at that time in 2009 was that the print media was losing its reach and influence in USA and there was this digital makeover that would change the way news and views were created and disseminated. In most of the cities we visited, the newspapers were given for free and obviously they tried hard to be in the business via advertisements both from the Government and the private bodies. You see a similar phenomenon here, although the print media is still working in India in different regional languages. The other thing that clearly came out is that media has its own agenda and momentum which is true perhaps in all democracies of the world. Before I go on to share my views about National Security and Media, I must tell  you that there were serious  concerns about the way the Mumbai terror attack was covered in real time by the much too eager media which was gripped with the “as it is happening now and breaking news” syndrome. It has come out clearly that this live coverage in real time caused immense set back to the Special Forces who were tasked to handle an extraordinary situation of taking on the Pakistani terrorists who had come by the sea to cause maximum devastation. Not just the role of the media which was to enforce a self-regulating code in the interests of national security but the agencies that were to enforce such media curbs had failed the situation and the nation. In every place visited by us the question of how and why the media and the regulators failed so miserably loomed large in all the discussions about counter terrorism efforts and the role of the media.

In many of the analysis of similar episodes-another one during Kargil covered by a well-known reporter needs mention for the give aways to the adversaries which weakened the position of the forces who were fighting against all odds. While it is possible that embedded journalism was being given a trial, surely, it appeared that all aspects of such an experiment were not fully visualized. It was brought out during this visit that the US security agencies did not lose any time in analyzing the event and in fact had sent out representatives from the FBI and the CIA to Mumbai within days of the Mumbai terror attack. It must be noted that post 9/11, the law makers quickly took measures to prevent recurrence. No time was lost in having a separate Department of Home Land Security (DHS). The Patriot Act ensured that there were stringent actions and supervision of all dimensions of terror whether home grown or imported. In contrast, the wheels of the law making machinery in India have moved rather slowly in implementing various counter terrorism initiatives and also firm laws to deal with the media on such occasions of national security breaches.

With that brief account of my visit to USA in the fall of 2009, let me now turn to the theme of the topic.

The media continues to be accepted as the fourth pillar of democracy and in many cases, they have demonstrated what can be achieved. Some of us here, at least have seen the way the media fought imposition of emergency and I remember a total blank front page that was published by the Indian Express. There have been recent incidents of media taking up many issues including security and bringing the issue to focus through informed debates. However, regrettably, those are becoming fewer and far between in the era of competitive news making.

Since the discussions are about national security, let me highlight what was said by Dr. Mankekar in his book on The Guilty Men of 1962. This was published well before the famous Henderson Brooks, Brook and Bhagat report on the Chinese debacle. I quote “In a democracy, the people have a right to know the why and wherefore of a national disaster. The government is accountable to the people. Where the government fails in its duty, a publicist may step in to fulfil that task.”  By extension, the publicist or media in its present form need not wait for a disaster to happen but needs to bring about awareness of issues that affect national security in any form well in time and not after the occurrence. Within our own system, there is plenty of opportunity to examine these issues by referring to open sources such as the Annual Reports of the Ministries, the Comptroller of Auditor General Reports, Parliamentary proceedings and such like. You would also remember the reluctance of the Government to make public the findings of the Henderson Brooks Bhagat report on the Indian debacle during the 1962 war. This is the kind of debate that comes with in the purview of the media when dealing with national security. It may be recounted that finally Volume 1 of the report was put out in the public domain by Neville Maxwell.

Let us try and understand National Security first, not in the conventional way of identifying security with secure borders, but with a holistic approach towards this issue. A nation cannot have secure borders and insecure citizens. The parameters of national security today include border security, human security, environmental security, health security, job security etc. Hence the media today which is recognized as a watch dog .The media will need to proactively pursue all issues of national security without bias, fear or favour.

Since the issue of conduct with the media in democracies has been alluded to it is necessary to briefly discuss the role of media in different forms of Government such as China, North Korea or some of the Middle Eastern kingdoms. Unlike the media in democratic countries which enjoy a great degree of freedom, it is clear that the media in the countries quoted above are governed by the rules of business as framed by the Government or party in power and are shackled to the brief provided by the Party. Any reading of any national paper of China will clearly bring out this aspect of total state control in relation to national security matters. The Doklam standoff brought out that the Chinese media went overboard in reporting about the incident aggressively as if a war would break out soon. It is obvious that such harsh biased reporting with use of indecent language would have not been resorted to without the blessings of the Chinese Government. This form of abuse by the media hardly contributed to a level of confidence that was necessary at that time to defuse the situation.

Having dwelt on the importance of media to national security and wellbeing, we can examine and see what is this wonderful creature is made of; what its interests are and how does it function at all.  Having dealt with media and based on my first hand interactions with many media personnel who are quite close to me, here are some of my observations.

  1. There continues to be proliferation of newspapers, journals, and TV channels both at the regional level and at the national level. The regional media expansion does provides a reach for greater integration on issues of national security provided the Government and the media houses act in unison and capitalize on this reach for impact. This is of course a tall order given the conflicting interests of regional parties who are vying for power and therefore would not like to endorse new policies even if it is for the larger good of the nation.

  2. The internet penetration and use of mobile platforms for infotainment is growing by leaps and bounds in India. This advantage needs to be used to leverage positive information chains by providing quality inputs through both the print and digital media.

  3. The relationship between journalists, politicians, military and the public is in a state of flux. The cacophony that surrounds the debates are more misleading than fact finding and result in a slanging match depending on the leaning of the one who covers the event. The bitter debates on the TV channels are more about raising the TRPs and not about truth.

  4. Media today is business and is run as such by powerful influential business houses. So to expect the media to be different from a business model is asking for the moon.

  5. Profit continues to be motive in most cases of media houses and garnering advertisements is a key objective. Circulation figures for newspapers and TRPs for visual media are driving factors which erode core values of journalism which is taught in class rooms but difficult to practice outside.

  6. Depending on who owns the outfit and what affiliation or ideology they subscribe to, the agenda would be driven accordingly. Media manipulation is more a rule than an exception.

  7. Media ethics and best practices are given the go by to suit the circumstances of the situation.

  8. In the world of digital media, multiple social media platforms whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat what is clear is that news, fake news, real news and morphed news is all out there in a jiffy and the biggest problem is the ability of such news to reach out exponentially to a large audience across time zones .

  9. Technology has changed the way media manages news and manages its clientele. The interview by the Vice President of Twitter carried in Times of India on 12th March 2018 brings out how technology and algorithms are increasingly finding their use in managing the overloaded information systems. However according to this interview, there are no separate efforts to prevent any news including fake news.

  10. Media now has a larger connotation as everyone with a digital device is a reporter or a transmitter of information or a message that has a large audience. The well reported case of the mass exit of Indian citizens from North East Regions from Bengaluru based on a mischievous SMS that spread like wild fire tells us the dangers of digital technology that can pose serious challenges to national security.

In the backdrop of the observations above, here are some pertinent questions that merit attention.

  1. As a stake holder, where does media draw the line in reporting of news? How much does it voluntarily withhold in national security? Which takes priority: Patriotism or a need to cash in on some lapse in the National Security System?

  2. How is news manipulated in such a manner that it jeopardizes the security of the individual, a group or the nation itself?

  3. Who decides on what the parameters of National Security are and what are national interests? What institutional measures are there to ensure that the media is onboard and drawing independent conclusions in the absence of any inputs or dialogue with the Government machinery?

  4. Despite the existence of the Regulatory framework for managing media, what are the codes of conduct that the media houses have to impose on themselves? This is very relevant as only if there are common accepted yardsticks are followed by both the media and the Government.

Hence the question arises of what we can conclude today about the role of Media and National security. It is undisputed that media has an obligation to report news truthfully and factually. But in the era of breaking news and reporting first with out at times checking the veracity of the news, there is serious danger of impacting national security in all its manifestations.

The often discussed case of distortion of the movement of tanks close to the NCR (National Capital Region) as if the Army was about to mastermind a coup and topple the elected Government is a grim reminder of the potential of mischief in this information era. The case of Major Gogoi who was able to save many lives by thinking out of the box is another example of how there is a mismatch between the media, the public and the makers of the law. The other case of another Army major who had no choice but to open fire to save the situation after giving ample warning is another case that merits serious introspection on the role of media in such cases.

The issues of morality and ethics have remained relevant and will continue to be so, if a nation has to overcome the challenges of vested interests. It has come to light that most of the pictures about the Syrian refugees that went viral were doctored and it has been proven that in many cases they were paid artists who were made to look victims of the war. Even the famous picture of a small boy, Aylan Kurdi, on the beach with his head down unfortunately was taken after repositioning the body in that position to rouse sentiments. There are no doubts that the boy had died but to use his body in this manner and to cash on this unfortunate death is what raises a lot more questions on the role of responsible media. These were efforts by NGOs to continue to receive aid and donations for their imagined rescue work in the war affected areas. Unfortunately, the west due to intense media and public pressure had allowed easier access to refugees. It has been proven that many terrorists moved freely along with refugees thus endangering the lives of public in the destination countries.

To conclude what is the message that there is for the bright youngsters such as you who are passing out of this prestigious institution?

It is clear that you have a challenging future ahead of you in your chosen career. I have no doubts that you will find that, there is no level field and there are many rough patches out there. Each one of you will find your own path to success. Depending on your pay master and his or her agenda, you will perhaps need to modify the way you deal with truth. But those are harsh realities that you need to contend with and learn to find answers both from the system and from outside the system. With the exposure here in a fine institution, you are better prepared to face the world that is managing media and the media that is managing the world.

The present Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Press Council address on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the PCI on 16th November 2016 said, I quote “there should be no government interference in the functioning of the media….freedom of expression needs to be followed, but there must be limits.”

Now here is the question. Who will draw those limits? When will the actions of the Governments to regulate this freedom be seen as an affront to democratic values? A Code of Conduct for the media does exist; there is also a regulatory body that exists; but, is it effective enough?

What George Fernandez said many years ago on National Security and Media is still very much relevant and let me recount his words:

“Dissent is the essence of a democratic polity. But when it comes to matters of national security, it is the unity of purpose and action of the entire people alone which will see us through. To achieve this, the media has a critical role to play. The print media, especially the regional and small newspapers, must inform and debate issues of national security. Today the electronic media has a reach unimaginable just five years ago. The simple rural person has an opportunity through television to observe the actions and hear the debates in Parliament. Should they see their elected representatives shouting and blocking democratic debate or can issues such as poverty and national security be discussed with seriousness and responsibility? The media will carry to the people what we say and what we do. At this time, a responsible collaboration between us will democratise and inform the debate on national security concerns”.

Finally, let me highlight some of the CBMs between the security establishment and the media which are required to bridge trust deficit. There has to be greater institutional relationship between the military and the media. The military has learnt it the hard way that it is not easy to “win the hearts and the minds of the people” without the support of an active media role. The services also needs to expose its officers to media management techniques. Those selected to be the Public Relations Officers could even be sent for an abridged course on media role and management. On a reciprocal basis, the media should have greater access to the security establishment and develop confidence that there tricky questions and concerns would be addressed. This enables healthy relations to develop between the media and the military establishment.

Embedded journalism found its way during 2003 when journalists were enlisted to report from battlefields in Iraq which were viewed from the drawing rooms around the world. There are of course debates about this course itself about whether it is alright for civilian journalists to be exposed to the dangers and brutality of war. More importantly, what if the journalist is taken prisoner or dies in the course of reporting?

The services are increasingly encouraging media participation in the military exercises and real time situations to make them aware of the capacity and capability of the nation in dealing with contingencies. The US Navy allows its combatant units to have their own webpage where many of the details that are in the public domain are put together and record of many of the events that take place on men of war are put up in the webpage. It also makes it easier for those who want to obtain some clarification or updates by contacting them directly.

For those of you who watched the interview of the Chief of the Naval Staff on Republic TV channel in early March this year, will realize how forceful it was to highlight the preparedness levels of the Indian Navy in the present context of an aggressive expansionist China. Arnab did make an observation and said that he does not understand why there is so much criticism about the serving chiefs going public with their views. After this interview he felt that there should be greater opportunities for the serving top echelons to assure the tax payer about the usefulness of the investments of the nation in national security apparatus.

In conclusion, the dimensions of national security need to be discussed, debated and analysed by the media to bring about greater awareness on the nuances of national security. The process should be an enabler for better decision making by the elected representatives of the Government. Media should exercise its role as a watch dog, a whistle blower and the voice of the people in a democracy. Let me take this opportunity to wish all the students, the faculty and the management great success and glory in all their endeavors.

(The views expressed by the speaker are his own and do not reflect those of the institutions he is affiliated to.)

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