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Surjeet-Sarabjit episode: Unnecessary comedy of errors

June 28, 2012 14:48 IST

The slow lethargic response of the government in the Surjeet-Sarabjit drama and the hyper, superfast response of the media can make for a lethal dose in India-Pakistan relations, says Seema Mustafa

Pakistan media frenzy and ignorance turned Surjeet Singh into Sarabjit Singh, and by the time the rather incompetent Pakistan government realised the import of what had happened, the Indian media had turned it into the hot news of the day.

Experts nudged and pushed by virulent anchors waxed eloquent about the 'Pakistani conspiracy' and as it now turns out, without any substance whatsoever.

Pakistan Peoples Party's Farhatullah Babar, who is media advisor to President Asif Ali Zardari, started the ball rolling with his announcement on Indian television confirming his government's decision to release Surjeet.

In fact as The Hindu has pointed out, many heard him repeat the name of Surjeet more than once in his remarks to the media in both India and Pakistan. Somewhere along the way a Pakistan news channel turned Surjeet into Sarabjit and after that it was a riot.

All channels in both countries ran away with the comment with the usual 'breaking news' announcing the release of Sarabjit Singh. By the time the Pakistan government rectified the error five valuable hours had passed, and by then the channels stars were on air about the 'conspiracy' and experts had started mouthing various theories about what could have happened to make Pakistan change its mind.

Now it seems it was just a media mouse that roared, and of course even though many in the top echelons of government were aware of the truth as it were, they chose to let the media create the usual misleading storm. 

Rather dangerous waters here, as it creates unnecessary tensions between the people (as obviously is the intention) and serves as a setback to the fragile peace process that both countries claim to be pursuing.

The Pakistan establishment of course has egg all over its face, with Babar himself unable to differentiate between the two names, and responding to media queries about 'Sarabjit's' release with an affirmative 'yes'. So from Surjeet he started speaking of Sarabjit's release in what was a clear confusion over names.

But instead of bothering to check or even note the change, the media on both sides of the border rushed to 'break' the news of the latter's release. The matter should have been immediately corrected but clearly incompetence came in the way and by the time Islamabad reacted the damage had been done.

But the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has not come out in a very good light either.

There seems to be a lack of coordination between the Indian mission in Islamabad and MEA in New Delhi as there was no move to stop Minister S M Krishna from immediately welcoming Pakistan's decision to release Sarabjit.

He later rectified this shift by welcoming the impending release of Surjeet and urging the Pakistan government to also release Sarabjit. The comedy of errors thus played out in the corridors of officialdom as well.

India and Pakistan always looking to damn the other at the slightest provocation would do well to ensure that issues are not created and lies not spun to do so. There is enough in the uneasy bilateral relations of both countries for taunts and allegations without either falling into the trap of reacting to shadows.

This takes away from legitimate functioning, and does not add to the credibility of either.

The media on both sides has come to resemble cats on a hot tin roof, as they spit and spat at each other over the slightest provocation. Journalists are supposed to verify the truth, particularly when relations are as sensitive as between India and Pakistan, and exercise some restraint instead of turning fiction into facts for the use of the hyperactive media industry.

Unnecessary tension was caused for Sarabjit's family with sudden joy turning into deep grief, while the channels played out a self created drama.

Their tears and woebegone faces said it all, and the tragic part is that this was all quite unnecessary. Of course some might argue that there was little the media could do when governments too were caught in their trap, but a little restraint would have cleared the picture.

It did seem to many senior journalists at the time that there had been an error of sorts, confirmed by just one responsible newspaper now, and that alone should have been reason enough for the channels to wait for positive affirmation and for the MEA to get in with a quick clarification.

The slow lethargic response of the government and the hyper, superfast response of the media can make for a lethal dose in India-Pakistan relations.

The reverse is required to ensure that issues do not get blown to levels where they further strain an already strained relationship, in that governments of both India and Pakistan should be on the alert, and sensitive to all that is happening on the bilateral level and the media should be restrained and careful to double check all it puts out as news.

Too much to ask? Perhaps, but essential to ensure that dangerous shadow boxing is replaced by levels of sobriety to ensure that peace remains a commitment and is not allowed to slip into the arena of seemingly justified hostility and war.

Seema Mustafa