In major diplomatic win, Pakistan returns downed fighter pilot to India

Pakistan on Friday handed over pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India through Pakistan-India border in Wagah (Photo Courtesy – Pakistan Air Force)
Updated 02 March 2019

In major diplomatic win, Pakistan returns downed fighter pilot to India

  • Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman handed over to Indian authorities around 9pm on Friday evening
  • Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had promised his return as a "gesture of goodwill"

ISLAMABAD: Captured Indian Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman was handed back to India on Friday, two days after he was captured by the Pakistan army and his jet downed, the Pakistani foreign office said, in a gesture seen as the first step towards dialling down the worst standoff between the two countries in decades. 

“Wing Commander Abhinandan, Indian POW [prisoner of war], returned to India today, as committed by PM [Prime Minister Imran] khan in his address to joint sitting of parliament, yesterday,” foreign office spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal said in a Twitter post.

On Tuesday, Pakistan said Indian jets had violated the Line of Control (LoC) border which splits the disputed Kashmir valley into two parts, one administered by Pakistan, the other by India. India said it hit a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday morning but Pakistan said Indian jets were barely in its airspace for a few minutes before being chased away by Pakistani warplanes without any damage to lives or infrastructure.

The next day, Pakistan said it had carried out airstrikes on six targets across its border with India, shot down two Indian warplanes and arrested an enemy pilot, raising the possibility of further escalation.

But during a joint session of parliament on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the captured pilot would be handed back to India the next day as a “gesture of peace.”

Pakistani TV channels showed Varthaman walking across the border at Wagah around 9p.m. on Friday night, accompanied by Pakistani paramilitary rangers. He was straight-backed and somber-faced, and wearing a crisp white shirt, a navy blazer and grey pants. As he crossed over into India, an Indian officer shook his hand and another walked him onto Indian soil as the iron gates of the border gate slammed shut.

Varthaman has become the face of latest tensions between India and Pakistan. The arch-rivals have fought three wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Two of them were over the disputed Kashmir region on their border.

Won’t push partisan 'agendas' through Pakistan digital media wing, its chief says

Updated 06 August 2020

Won’t push partisan 'agendas' through Pakistan digital media wing, its chief says

  • Imran Ghazali is one of the founding members of the social media team of PM Khan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party
  • Digital Media Wing was set up in February “to effectively counter fake and libellous news and highlight development agenda of government”

ISLAMABAD: A longtime aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan and the newly appointed chief of Pakistan’s Digital Media Wing (DMW) said this week he would not allow official social media channels to be used to push “personal or party” agendas.
The cabinet of PM Khan approved the new digital unit in February this year, and appointed Imran Ghazali as its general manager on August 3. Ghazali, a longtime media executive, is one of the founding members of the social media team of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the political party founded and headed by PM Khan.
The DMW, which has a 22-member team of content writers, graphic designers, video editors and videographers, has received funding of Rs42.791 million, or $256,000, from the government to kickstart its work.
“Our sole mandate is to provide the public with genuine official information on social media platforms,” Ghazali told Arab News in an interview. “Let me assure our critics that we won’t be pushing any personal or party agenda through official digital channels.”
Responding to criticism that he has been hired because of his closeness to the prime minister, Ghazali said: “I’m hired for the job based on my years of industry experience, and through a rigorous official process.”
Ghazali has previously worked as head social media consultant at DFID’s family planning project DAFPAK, led digital strategy for UNICEF for the Clean Green Pakistan initiative and worked as a consultant for the World Bank, among many other senior positions in the media industry.
APP, Pakistan’s state news agency, reported on February 4 that the Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet had approved the creation of a new digital media unit in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
“The purpose of the wing would be to effectively counter the fake and libellous news and highlight the development agenda of the government,” the APP said.
The creation of the new digital media unit has raised concerns the government is taking yet another step to curb press freedoms.
Last month, Pakistan’s interior minister said the government planned to introduce new laws to curb coronavirus misinformation on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities will use the additional powers to suppress criticism of government policies. The government denies this.
The National Command and Operation Center, a top federal body set up to oversee the government’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, has also set up a committee under the chairmanship of the interior minister to prepare a legal framework to help the government deal with “fake news” on social media platforms.
In February, the government approved, and then rolled back, new rules to regulate cyberspace after opponents said they could be used to stifle dissent. Social media companies have also largely shunned obliging to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove online content deemed unlawful.
Last year, the government’s plans to launch specialist media courts also sparked a furious backlash from media and rights advocates amid complaints of growing pressure on broadcasters and newspapers to avoid covering critics of the ruling administration, which the administration denies.
But Ghazali said the new digital wing was only meant to release informative videos and data-driven content to improve Pakistan’s image abroad and counter ‘propaganda’ against the country.
“We need to show the world through digital platforms that Pakistan is a peaceful and peace loving country, and we’ll be doing this to attract foreign tourists and investment,” he said.
Ghazali said his team’s first task would be to create official social media accounts of all government ministries, as only ten to twelve departments currently had a digital presence.
“This is the age of Internet and social media, so we have to boost our presence to connect with the public,” he said, adding: “We won’t be working for ministers or any government functionary, instead our role is to strengthen the overall digital media presence of the state.”
Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, said it would be a challenge for the new digital media unit to be an impartial body that provided reliable news and didn’t push the government’s agenda.
“Its [the wing’s] TORs [terms of reference] should be made public as people deserve to know what their mandate is and what they are doing,” she said. “The officials of the digital media wing should be neutral, transparent and there must be an independent accountability system, so taxpayers money is not squandered.”