Marking a significant departure from the last time an IAF officer was in Pakistani custody, the first such reports this week came not from Indian sources but from videos and tweets posted by Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, Radio Pakistan and the Government of Pakistan’s official handles.
This is a change from India’s “first televised war” in 1999, when the imagery of conflict in Kargil was beamed into living rooms for the first time. Just over 30 lakh people in India were then Internet users, according to the World Bank.
Now, almost 40 crore people — a third of India’s population — use the Internet. For many of them, this week’s updates — true or not —landed in their smartphones.
News of the IAF aircraft crossing the LoC on Tuesday initially came through Ghafoor’s Twitter handle. Thursday’s news of Pakistan’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman first came through the Government of Pakistan’s account. The day before, as reports of his capture came in, Ghafoor’s tweets and his press conference in Pakistan were cited.
The Indian government attempted to stem this flow. The IT Ministry directed YouTube on Wednesday to take down 11 videos involving the IAF pilot, an IT Ministry official confirmed. The Home Ministry sent the list of videos to the IT Ministry, a source said. The IT Ministry official said that YouTube complied the same day, but as of Thursday evening, one could still view videos that have driven the news over the past couple of days.
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In contrast, no mainstream Indian news channel broadcast Ghafoor’s Wednesday press conference. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had on Monday slapped showcause notices on two channels, ABP News and Tiranga TV, that had aired a February 22 press conference of Ghafoor.
With no television channels showing Ghafoor’s press conference, the tweets from Pakistan were the first point of information for even government officials.
Three-and-a-half hours before the Indian government provided any official information, Ghafoor had tweeted the initial notice about the IAF pilot’s capture. Soon after, Radio Pakistan tweeted photos and videos of what they claimed to be the burning aircraft and the arrested Indian pilot. Ghafoor also posted the video of his press conference in Pakistan. #PakFakeClaim began to trend on Twitter in India, and news channels picked it up.
After the first Ministry of External Affairs media briefing at 3.15 pm, Ghafoor corrected his earlier tweets to say that Pakistan had captured not two, but one, Indian pilot. #PakFakeClaim began to fall on the trends list, and fell off by evening, as #BringBackAbhinandan took its place.
Ghafoor’s tweets were referenced by Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor in Thursday night’s briefing. “Pakistan later in the evening changed its statement… Therefore, it was only by late evening that Pakistan accepted the fact,” he said.
As events unfolded on Wednesday, television and online outlets warned users not to believe information streaming in from Pakistan. A Doordarshan broadcaster said: “…We appeal to the countrymen that do not trust these videos and do not forward them, because this is Pakistan-sponsored propaganda in itself, and we should not become a part of it.” This appeal was also shared on social media by Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati.