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PMO scan on news agency

New Delhi, July 19: A senior official in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) will “monitor” PTI, India’s largest news agency, for any “criticism of the government, negative reports or news items that could have policy implications”, according to a recent circular.

The move, possibly a first for any PMO, is seen as part of the Narendra Modi government’s attempts to assess public perception of its performance after its massive mandate. Previous regimes, officials said, had kept tabs on the Press Trust of India but had done so from the lower rungs, mainly through the Centre’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).

This time, PTI isn’t the only one. Reports are prepared daily for the PMO on information about the Modi administration in the social media.

A PIB communiqué issued on July 16 and sent to various ministries says Kishan Ratnani, deputy director (feedback, PMO), will “monitor” PTI at the National Media Centre — the government’s new information hub — and alert spokespersons on “negative reports” about the government.

The communiqué also mentions the task will require the official to look for any item with “policy implications, criticism of the government, negative reactions on government decisions or potential to develop into important news”.

The PIB chief will have to be informed about such reports “on a priority basis, via SMS and email”, the communiqué says, adding the directions have been issued with the approval of the bureau principal director-general, Neelam Kapur.

The government is one of PTI’s thousands of subscribers, the others being dailies, private TV channels, and public broadcasters All India Radio and Doordarshan.

PTI — a non-profit co-operative of over 450 Indian newspapers — also exchanges information with several other agencies and publications based abroad. It has a 90 per cent market share among Indian news agencies.

Kapur insisted the monitoring by PMO officer Ratnani was only an “internal reshuffle” aimed at ensuring a dedicated officer for the task. “PTI has always been monitored by us but somehow it was not being done properly as the PIB started shifting to the National Media Centre sometime back. Now, an official has been deputed for the task.”

“At PIB, it is our job to prepare feedback for the government from various media platforms, be it print, electronic or social media. We are doing exactly the same. There is no major change in policy,” Kapur said.

Asked why a PMO official was asked to send out specific alerts on reports containing “negative elements or criticism of the government”, Kapur argued it was one of PIB’s responsibilities to gather news reports for the government.

Sources, however, suggested otherwise. “The Modi government, ever since it came to power, has been fussier about information being put out in all forms of media. Reports about information on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are being sent to the PMO twice a day,” said a government source.

The PMO has also instructed the PIB to send dossiers each morning on newspaper and other reports in a structured format under several specific heads, the information meticulously flagged and segregated.

The heads include “positive and negative reports about the Prime Minister, the government, the BJP and its allies and the Opposition”. Other heads under which the PIB files feedback now are “grievances, editorials, op-eds and other articles”, the source said.