No excuses, no nitpicking. The entire media got the ‘Sarabjit to be released’ story wrong — including The Hindu, in its early editions before we stopped press at midnight to make the correction. If anything, the Sarabjit/Surjeet Singh mix-up has held a mirror to the beast that the media has become: easily excitable, know-it-all and supremely confident to the extent of being tone deaf even when Pakistan’s Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar was clearly saying on Indian television channels — and by extension to the tuned-in print media — that “Surjeet Singh” was entitled to be released. The media stands exposed but still does not have the grace to admit it was wrong, let alone introspect or apologise for giving false hope to the family of a condemned man. Worse, a section of the media has topped it all up with theories galore on why Islamabad made the “midnight switch”. Ironically, because of the nature of the story and how it unfolded, Sarabjit’s family at least got to air its disappointment. But what of all those mistakes that are being made by the media in the rush to be first with the news? The insensitive line of questioning to bring out raw emotion on camera, the crowding around rescue operations for a “quote”, or ruining investigations by breezing into crime scenes? In this particular case, there is the fig leaf of an excuse in the two names sounding similar but the media was clearly not listening and kept repeating ‘Sarabjit’ so often that on at least one TV show, Mr. Babar himself got confused and used that name for the man he had referred to only seconds earlier as ‘Surjeet.’
In the India-Pakistan context, the role of the media on both sides has been particularly dubious; leading the pack in baying for blood at the smallest of irritants even while talking Track-II, overly obsessing with certain issues, and allowing emotions and rhetoric to determine the narrative instead of informed discourse. To be fair to both governments, the Foreign Offices in recent months have been restrained in the face of provocation from the media. If Islamabad was at pains to explain to the local media that granting ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status to India was not equivalent to making it Pakistan’s ‘Most Favourite Nation’, officials of the Ministry of External Affairs sought to drive home the fact that both Kashmir and the Mumbai terror attacks got equal play in the last round of Foreign Secretary-level talks. Both governments have been trying to create space for each other to navigate the slippery route to peaceful co-existence and cooperation, made all the more treacherous by the media which has allowed shrill voices to flourish to the detriment of sane and studied opinion. Mercifully, the media-created fiasco that made the Pakistan government — already under siege for other reasons — look bad did not stall Surjeet Singh’s release. His return should now set the stage for the repatriation of all Indian and Pakistani prisoners who remain incarcerated across the border despite completing their sentences.