Clearly, it was the media which created the Sarabjit-Surjeet Singh mix-up. A recap of television footage of the Pakistan Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar detailing the case on various Indian channels on Tuesday evening has him name Surjeet Singh as the man Islamabad planned to release.
After a Pakistani news channel broke the news and named the Indian — who once faced the death sentence in Pakistan — as Sarabjit Singh, the media, including print, went with that name despite Mr. Babar identifying him as ‘Surjeet Singh.’ In fact, in one programme, he ends up using both names in response to repeated references by a reporter to the prisoner as ‘Sarabjit Singh’.
And print journalists who spoke to Mr. Babar said they asked him about ‘Sarabjit/Sarjeet’ and the response came in the affirmative. The Hindu also got a similar reply when he was asked whether “Sarabjit Singh’s death sentence had been commuted.” The Express Tribune — which wrote about the mistaken identity — again got the spelling wrong; identifying the man in question as ‘Sarjeet Singh.’
However, the delay in making the correction — which came five hours and several headlines and talk shows later — triggered a series of conspiracy theories. As per one theory, the Zardari dispensation was testing the waters by floating wrong information to gauge the reaction to reports of Sarabjit’s impending release.
Another theory was the civilian government had buckled under pressure from the security establishment and right-wing organisations, besides the criticism in the media over the release of a “terrorist who had killed 14 Pakistanis.” Add to this, reports of threats of suicide by families of those killed in the two bomb blasts Sarabjit is accused of.
The correction came close to midnight, in which Mr. Babar said it was not Sarabjit but Surjeet whose name had been recommended for release. Pushing 80, Surjeet had been arrested and sentenced to death on the charge of spying during the Zia-ul Haq regime. In the first government of Benazir Bhutto, he became a beneficiary of a general amnesty granted to all those sentenced to death, and his life imprisonment term ended in 2004. However, he continued to languish in Lahore’s Kot Lakpat Jail (Central Jail).
On Tuesday, the Law Ministry recommended to the Interior Ministry the release of Surjeet, arguing that keeping him in custody any longer would be illegal confinement. Earlier this year, the Lahore High Court intervened in the matter on a petition, seeking his release since he had completed his term.
Surjeet’s case was less known than that of the younger Sarabjit, who is still on death row. His fifth and latest mercy petition was submitted on May 29 after the Supreme Court of India allowed the release on bail of Pakistani octogenarian virologist Khalil Chishty from a Rajasthan jail. Sarabjit is also lodged in the same Kot Lakpat Jail and has been there for the past 22 years.
Asked how the entire media could have got the release message so wrong, Mr. Babar told The Hindu: “I gave the factual position to everyone who asked me. The Presidency did not issue any press release about Surjeet case because it is not the subject of [the] Presidency. A section of the media having got wind of it from somewhere got it wrong and others driven by [the] breaking news syndrome further purveyed it wrongly.”