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Sushma gives lessons to Kashmir spin doctors

New Delhi, Sept. 5: The Centre is slotting its PR machinery into place for the Kashmir polls with information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj summoning the officials of four ministries for a lesson on image management.

The two-hour meeting on Wednesday evening, held in her ministry’s conference room in Shastri Bhavan, was attended by officers from the ministries of home affairs, defence, external affairs, the Cabinet secretariat, the Research and Analysis Wing, the Directorate General of Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau, Press Information Bureau and Prasar Bharati, apart from the Prime Minister’s press advisers and principal spin doctors, Sudheendra Kulkarni and Ashok Tandon.

Chairing the meeting, Swaraj said it was important that media portrayal of the elections was from the national perspective. She said select politicians would be briefed regularly so that when they were interviewed on television “they will rise above party lines and speak in a united voice”.

Swaraj emphasised it was important that election coverage in the media, particularly the Western media, was fair and sent out the message that this was democracy in practice. “Journalists and the world must know that this is a participative exercise, not a sham,” the minister said. She told the officers, many of whom will be supervising media centres specially opened for the elections in Srinagar, Leh and Jammu, to be particularly attentive to the fact that the Pakistani media often lifted critical news stories from Indian newspapers.

The poll turnout will be the focus of attention in sensitive constituencies, Swaraj noted. While the Pakistani media will no doubt say this was due to the “alienation” of Kashmiris, it was important to put across to Indian newspapers and the foreign media that terrorist violence is a significant reason for the poor attendance of voters.

During the discussions, the point was made that Pakistan was also due to go to the polls. “We have to show to the world that our elections (in Kashmir) are far better than theirs,” said a source quoting one of the principal figures in the meeting.

Officials were asked to be ready with pat explanations. For instance, “if a journalist makes the point that there seems to be something wrong in the electoral rolls because they show more voters in Jammu than in the Valley, it must be immediately pointed out that a lot of people from the Valley have left as refugees.”

Swaraj said she would be meeting senior journalists and news producers of television channels on the preparations for the elections. She has already held meetings with representatives of Zee and Aaj Tak. While the meetings with seniors of television news channels have been given more priority, editors in the print media, too, would be briefed.

The joint secretary, external publicity, was advised to be particularly mindful of the visits of journalists from foreign news agencies.

One of the problems raised by officers was that while foreign visitors, who introduced themselves as journalists, had to go through the external publicity wing, it was difficult to keep track of those who visited Kashmir on the pretext of tourism.

A representative from one of the security agencies said the army must ensure that troops stayed out of camera frames because the foreign media often “blew out of proportion” the army’s presence in the state. “The media should be showing that the army is in Kashmir for the protection of the voters and not to manipulate the elections,” the officer said. In any case, the army has been asked not to be seen inside polling booths.

Sudheendra Kulkarni pointed out that the Press Information Bureau must also make arrangements for journalists from the regional press. The idea of the PIB footing the bill for media coverage during some conducted tours was also mooted.

Ashok Tandon said it was important that journalists visiting media centres were given media kits, briefings and backgrounders. The PIB would be asked to distribute photographs on the polls.

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