On Tuesday morning, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale gave a measured briefing to the nation on the Indian Air Force’s air strikes on terror camps in Pakistan.
It lasted less than five minutes with Gokhale refusing to take any questions from the media. A key feature of the presser was to state the aim of the air strikes. The Foreign Secretary said: “… India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. The facility in Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri), the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, chief of JeM.”
Gokhale did not specify the number of terrorists killed, neither did he state that Yousuf Azhar had been killed in the air strikes. Former Jammu & Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah also tweeted that the government was “categorical” that it wouldn’t speculate on the number of JeM cadre killed and that those quoting numbers had “no basis in fact”.
Yet a large section of the media, especially the television media, jumped the gun to assert that India had managed to eliminate Yousuf Azhar.
‘Saale Ko Maar Daala’
ABP News ran breaking news on Azhar being killed through the day without exactly stating where they had received this information from. The channel ran the ticker “Aaj Saale Ko Maara”. Saale being a pun on the word “brother-in-law”.
On Times Now, while anchor Navika Kumar read updates from a mobile phone, one half of the TV screen told us that Azhar had been eliminated.
On Republic TV, we were told that 25 top commanders of the Jaish-e-Mohammed had been eliminated. This information was sourced to the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
The channel’s anchor then declared: “245 terrorists eliminated … it’s a big body blow … this is the beginning of the end … Maulana Masood Azhar, his nephew, his brother … all eliminated … and many more.”
It was simply mind-boggling to see so-called journalists on Republic TV make such tall claims on national television through the day, even as the government of India remained measured in its statements.
Zee News stated that Yousuf Azhar was present at the camp when the air strikes took place. The headline read: “Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law killed in IAF attack on JeM terror camps”.
In the morning papers today, The Times of India declared Yousuf Azhar dead. This information was not sourced back to any official in the ministry or the Armed Forces.
Hindustan Times in its report “Yusuf Azhar, IC-814 hijacker, was key target of the Balakot air strike” stated that “post-attack chatter suggests he may have been killed in the pre-dawn air strike on the camp”. (Emphasis added.)
So, did a section of the Indian media present us chatter as breaking news? It appears so.
Newslaundry reached out to a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson on the question of Azhar being killed and whether there was any truth to the media’s claims. The spokesperson said: “We have not issued any statement after the Foreign Secretary’s statement which he read out yesterday. At this stage, there is nothing more to add. As and when we feel that we have sufficient material to come up with another statement, we will release it officially.”
‘Nationalist media’, an embarrassment
It is not as if all of the Indian media abandoned its commitment to journalism while reporting on the air strikes. India Today stated that it was not yet confirmed if Yousuf Azhar had been killed. NDTV anchor Vishnu Som stated that the Home Ministry “believed” that India had taken down top Jaish leaders including Maulana Masood Azhar’s relatives. Note how the information is presented as a belief and not as a confirmed fact.
Asia Times, while reporting on the details of the strike and its importance, also underscored how some of the claims being made in the media may be an exaggeration. The report quoted an Indian government source who said that “it was likely he [Yousuf Azhar] survived the air strikes as the Azhar families had been moved out soon after the Pulwama suicide attack”.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Asia Times South Asia Editor Saikat Dutta stated: “Indian intelligence is quite confident that Yousuf is alive and very much around. They have credible inputs that the Masood Azhar family was moved out to safe locations soon after the Pulwama terror attack, anticipating an Indian response. The non-state actors are integral to the Pakistani Army’s strategy”.
Aditya Raj Kaul, who tracks foreign affairs and has been reporting on the air strikes, told Newslaundry that Intelligence officials have generally indicated that the Balakot terror training camp of JeM at any given point of time has more than 250 cadres training, apart from terror commanders, trainers and Jaish leadership. “Hence the number of casualties could revolve around 300 including the head of the camp Yousuf Azhar. Yet there is no independent confirmation from Indian officials nor has there been an admission by Jaish-e-Mohammed yet,” he said.
The Indian air strikes in Pakistan are significant for more than one reason—principle among them is calling out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. But a large section of the self-proclaimed nationalist media has done huge disfavour by using the Indian Air Force’s work to chest-thump and spread half-baked information.
The elimination of top Jaish leadership is a huge claim to make and India risks international embarrassment if these claims are made without any credible information or are found to be incorrect. Perhaps it is inevitable in times like this for the media to go down the jingoist root, the least one could expect though is for them to retain some commitment to facts.