The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Empty ministry caught in media skirmish

Washington, Sept. 13: In less than a week after Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh were taken hostage in Iraq on July 21, it became obvious to the external affairs ministry that dealing with the media would be a big challenge while negotiating for the release of the three Indian truckers.

Television channels, hungry for sound bites, were reporting anything they chanced upon. Some of it was inflammatory. One channel quoted a relative of one of the hostages as saying that the hostage-takers were, after all, Muslims and that Muslims wanted to harm Hindus.

In sections of the media, it was alleged that the three truck drivers were delivering arms to the US army near Fallujah, where fighting was in full swing between Iraqi insurgents and the Americans.

There was extreme concern in the ministry that if those who were holding the Indians captive or their leaders saw these media reports or were told about them, Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh had no chance of surviving their ordeal.

To make matters worse, the ministry was going through a leadership deficit. Foreign secretary Shashank was only a few days from retiring and had more or less stopped attending office regularly.

South Block, which normally has three secretaries in addition to the foreign secretary, now had only one. He was up to his neck in his area of work: economic affairs. One secretary , R. Abhyankar, was on his way to Brussels to take over as India's new ambassador.

Another secretary had been loaned to Jagdish Tytler in his new role as minister for non-resident Indians. The minister of state for external affairs, E. Ahmed, was thrown at the deep end of the crisis. But he lacked experience in government.

On the day the 'Islamic Army in Iraq' killed a Pakistani engineer and his driver ' who were taken hostage two days after the Indians ' Shyam Saran decided to take matters into his hands.

Saran called a few correspondents, most of them from the visual media, to South Block, where he did not yet have a proper office. At that meeting, the incoming foreign secretary appealed to the media with folded hands to realise that they were playing with the lives of three men.

This unconventional approach to media management had its effect. Television reports about the hostages became more sober ' and responsible. But a new crisis was brewing for the unsuspecting negotiators.

In Kuwait, the employers of the three hostages, the Kuwait Gulf Link (KGL), were beginning to realise their power over the Indian media. In the days immediately after the Indians were taken captive, anybody who picked up the phone at KGL talked to reporters and told them what they knew about the situation

When KGL realised what was happening, they took steps to streamline the flow of news from the company. The management put a young, garrulous Arab woman, Rana Abu-Zaineh, in charge of fielding the media. She went about doing her job in earnest.

KGL had a clever plan to use the media. Frankly, it could not care about the three Indians, who were being held along with four more of its employees ' three Kenyans and an Egyptian.

Nor did it want to stop doing business in Iraq, which was a gold mine. KGL decided to use the media to try to come out of the hostage crisis smelling like roses and preserve every bit of its business in Iraq.

A new challenge to South Block was the disinformation Rana was putting out ' disinformation that suited KGL. The company openly offered inducements to reporters and succeeded at least in one case.

It confirms a widespread Kuwaiti belief that anything and anyone can be bought.

A prominent Kuwaiti had said shortly after the Iraqi aggression had been beaten back in 1991: 'Till now, we knew we could get anyone to work for us.' The Americans have taught us now that we can get anyone to fight for us.'

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