New Delhi: It has copped flak online for the way it has run the country, but the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government believes it has found ways to get better e-Press—by owning the Press—and understand the dynamics of social media, by creating a strategic media think tank.
The UPA is considering launching an online newspaper that will highlight its achievements, according to a cabinet note on a proposed new media wing that is to be created in the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B).
The note, which has been reviewed by Mint, also speaks of the think tank and has been put up for discussion by the ministry.
I&B minister Manish Tewari declined to comment because he said the cabinet note involves inter-ministerial consultation.
One expert described the moves as “amusing”.
“This is a panicky reaction and an expansionist move on part of the I&B ministry. New media requires quick and instant reactions, and a bureau cratic organization is not up to the task as there is a long chain of command involved,” said N. Bhaskara Rao , chairman of the Centre for Media Studies, a New Delhi-based research firm. Rao is also a former adviser to the I&B ministry.
The government’s strategy is driven by the need to keep pace with a significant shift in communication towards social media networks and follows the failure of recent attempts to control content on Internet sites. According to a September 2012 research report by industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai) and research agency IMRB, India was expected to have around 150 million Internet users by the end of last year.
Online forums have featured corruption scandals that have dogged the coalition government in its second term, the latest being the alleged kickbacks paid by an Italian defence firm to win a Rs.3,600 crore order to supply helicopters for ferrying important government functionaries.
The cabinet note put up for discussion by the I&B ministry has sought “in principle approval for publishing online newspaper, highlighting the achievements and success stories” of the government.
Media units such as the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, the Press Information Bureau, and the Song and Drama Division of the I&B ministry now oversee the government’s public relations efforts.
The cabinet note outlines the objective thus: “To establish new media wing in the ministry which will implement government’s mandate of the ministry relating to information dissemination using social media platforms (and) to set up an independent think tank for media research called Strategic Communication Initiative for studying media trends and innovations in the media space.”
This proposed think tank will serve as an adviser to the government. It will be registered as a society and “the ministry will float a separate proposal as per the guidelines”, the cabinet note said.
The note also sought in-principle approval for the proposed strategy for communication through social media platforms.
Media experts such as Smita Jha said getting the content strategy right will be key to the success of the government’s new media initiative.
“However, the potential reach of their initiative online will be limited as compared to their initiatives on television or radio, which still have huge untapped potential,” said Jha, leader of the media and entertainment practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Another media expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “So far the government’s attempts in digital media have not been very successful. The real question remains what content will they publish and how will they make it relevant.”
Online networks served as forums for mobilizing participants in public protests that took place after the 16 December gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi and the anti-corruption campaign led by activist Anna Hazare.
The government’s attempts at trying to keep a lid on social media have come off thus far as ham-handed.
Telecom minister Kapil Sibal faced criticism earlier last year for what was regarded as an attempt to control social media over comments against the government and the Congress leadership.
Later, the government sought to rein in what were deemed to be hate messages that led to a panic exodus of people from the north-eastern states from cities such as Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.
Meenakshi Natarajan, said to be a member of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle, had attempted to move a private member’s Bill that proposed strict controls on the media that were construed as an attack on freedom of expression. Natarajan, however, was not present in the Lok Sabha when it was listed.
In an interview to Mint in January, Tewari said, “We are trying to surmount a 20th century information challenge with 19th century tools at our disposal. The communications apparatus of the government has to undergo a fundamental overhaul.”
He added, “As we speak, we are in the process of seeing how the government can engage with people on social media. After all, these are content-agnostic platforms. They are technology platforms and as open to governments as to an ordinary citizen.”
The advent of smartphones has helped expand India’s online community. According to a recent report by Iamai, India will be home to 130.6 million mobile Internet users by March 2014.
“Email, social networking services and messengers have high usage among mobile Internet users,” the report said.
Vidhi Choudhary contributed to this story.