Pregnant in the din over demands for proof of kill and statements that patriots shouldn’t ask for proof, whether or not targets were struck or only trees were uprooted, is the conduct of the media both sides of the border. Sections of the Indian television news media have turned ‘warmongers’, studio warriors demanding Pakistan be taught a lesson, giving fodder for their Pakistani counterparts to pit India’s militaristic intentions with a ‘peaceful Pakistan’ narrative.
The ‘Republic’ of India regularly lines up ‘anti-nationals’ on prime-time television and asks them to shout Jai Hind and Bharat Mata Ki Jai; and woe betide to the one who doesn’t. A rival channel is not far behind in being establishment-friendly albeit it doesn’t go to the extent of asking for proof of patriotism from panelists representing opposition parties. Intemperate statements by politicians feed the frenzy and it’s a daily evening diet of hyper-nationalism fed to viewers.
That is the Indian media, which have also been charged with peddling ‘fake news.’ But it’s their Pakistani counterparts, which are getting away with murder. For, lost in Pakistani obfuscation is the fate of the F-16 pilot who ejected from his fatally-hit aircraft and then has not been heard of since except in Social Media.
Pakistan’s DGISPR Maj Gen Ghafoor wrongly, some would say ‘conveniently’, identified him as “a second IAF pilot” in Pakistan custody. “The other one is in the Central Command Hospital,” the Maj Gen told Pakistan media on February 27 to cries of Pakistan Zindabad from the journalists.
It was only after Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale clarified that India ‘lost a Mig-21 Bison’ and an ‘IAF pilot is missing’ did Maj Gen Ghafoor correct himself and let the world know that only ‘one IAF pilot’ was in Pakistan’s custody. But did he say anything about the pilot in Central Command Hospital? No, that he did not, and why not? Neither did the Pakistan media ask the question, call out their DGISPR’s faux pas.
The Pakistan Army and Pakistan media to date continue to say that ‘two IAF aircraft’ were shot down by Pakistani jets on February 27. Pakistani media also chose not question Pakistan about the use of F-16s in the counter-strike against Indian military installations. Sadly, Indian media, except for a recently launched weekly, also did not ask the question: “Who was the second IAF pilot?” The answer was provided in Social Media by Pakistanis.
The ‘second IAF pilot’ was in fact a ‘PAF pilot’, Wing Commander Shabzaz-ud-Din, who on ejecting from his stricken F-16 landed in PoK and was brutally beaten up by civilians, who mistook him for an IAF pilot. Wing Commander Abhinandan escaped a similar fate because of his gun and because Pak Army soldiers reached him in time, but not Wing Commander Shahzaz-ud-Din.
What happened next? Wing Commander Shabzaz-ud-Din is taken to hospital and DGISPR Maj Gen Ghafoor is told that a ‘second IAF pilot’ is in Pakistan Army’s custody. The Maj Gen jumps the gun and proclaims to the Pakistani media that a ‘second captured IAF pilot is in hospital.’
Wing Commander Shahbzaz-ud-Din is an unsung casualty of war, whose misfortune is so great that he isn’t even named by the Pakistan Armed Forces or his valour celebrated by his countrymen. Two Wing Commanders of rival air forces. One is a ‘hero’; the other is not even recognised as a ‘martyr.’
Nothing extraordinary there, Pakistan has never shirked from accepting the deaths of its soldiers in wars if it suits Pakistan’s narrative. But it’s the role of the Pakistani media in perpetuating the lie that has not been called out. Pakistani media, collectively and willingly, chose not to question the Pakistan Army.
Pakistan television channels and print media alike whitewashed Wing Commander Shabzaz-ud-Din’s martyrdom. None of the Indian media-bashing Pakistan media felt it incumbent to do justice to Wing Commander Shabzaz-ud-Din, one of their own. That probably is the difference between Pakistan and Indian media. While most Indian media take seriously the ‘independent media’ tag, their Pakistani counterparts steadfastly toe the Pakistani establishment line, and Pakistan’s national interest.
The few times Pakistani journalists have exposed Pakistan’s lies, they have been hounded and intimidated. It happened to Cyril Almeida of Dawn newspaper and Taha Siddiqui, who reported from Pakistan for WION. Siddiqui was almost disappeared by Pakistan’s ISI and is now an exile in France. Almeida continues to be on Pakistan’s passport watch list and is guilty of getting Nawaz Sharif to admit that Pakistan orchestrated 26/11.
But it’s the international media, markedly Pakistan-friendly, which are being questioned, media like the New York Times and CNN, for asking probing questions on how many JeM terrorists were killed in the Balakot strikes and if terror targets were in fact hit even as Pakistani media called for the Nobel for Imran Khan and sections of Indian media sold Narendra Modi to the Indian voter.
Sushil Kutty is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.