VIEW: Conspiracy factories —Laila Khan - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Source :\03\12\story_12-3-2011_pg3_3

Pakistani media is infested not only with conspiracy theories, but with propaganda rings that seek not to inform but to manipulate. As long as this is the case, media freedom is only an illusion

When the US, under President George W Bush decided to invade Iraq, a well-documented propaganda campaign was undertaken in which the American people were convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 attacks — a piece of misinformation that was necessary to justify the invasion. The propaganda tactic used was a simple one: continue repeating a piece of misinformation, even after it has been disproved, and enough people will either believe the lie or get so confused about the issue that space will be available to promote a political agenda. This same propaganda tactic of repeating a claim even after it has been disproved appears quite regularly in Pakistan’s media and, like its neo-con cousin in the US, the misinformation presented is born in a network of shadowy ‘think-tanks’.

An example of this tactic at work can be observed in the number of news stories that continue to assert that the number of visas issued to American officials has skyrocketed in recent years and that the country has witnessed an influx of Americans granted entry without undergoing standard background checks.

This conspiracy theory was disproved a few weeks ago when Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani held a press conference during which he opened the books and revealed to journalists that there was no conspiracy and that all visas were issued following proper protocols.

Despite the evidence, media commentators continue to repeat these claims. In a piece that was published in two newspapers on the same day, one ‘analyst’ notes that Pakistan’s embassy in Washington issued 400 visas to the US nationals in two days, but he does not explain that the majority of these visas were issued for a state visit by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff and security before a July 2010 visit. According to the embassy, these American officials were in Pakistan only for two or three days. Without this context, the readers are left to believe that the floodgates have been opened for an invasion of ‘Raymond Davises’.

The author goes on to quote the embassy that “approximately 3,555 US diplomats, military officials and employees of allied agencies were issued visas in 2010”. But, as the ambassador explained last month, most of the US officials and contractors were only in the country for three months each, so the total number of US nationals in Pakistan would be 1/4th to 1/3rd of the total number of visas issued during the year. This means that, at any given moment, there are probably 1,000 or fewer US officials in Pakistan.

This number, too, should be viewed in context. Since the 1980s, the number of US diplomatic visas has been roughly the same. During the Cold War, the largest CIA station in the world was located in Pakistan. As many as 780 US diplomats were listed in the Islamabad Diplomatic List during the government of General Zia. The author claims that “there have been no worthwhile voices on these expansionist designs of the US in Pakistan from various circles”, but the truth is that the numbers do not support any claims of American expansion in Pakistan.

In addition to these misrepresentations, it is also curious that multiple authors are repeating the same personal attack against unnamed government officials by suggesting that ‘personal relations and personal gains’ are being prioritised over the national interests of Pakistan. Is it a mere coincidence that multiple authors wrote the same smear, or is this a case of talking points being provided to guide the writers?

A week before one article appeared in the newspaper, a paragraph from it was posted as a comment on the website of another newspaper. The commenter left a different name than that of the analyst. This raised eyebrows among media watchdogs.

Research revealed that this same article first appeared on the website of a ‘virtual think-tank’ chaired by a retired military officer. Further research revealed that this retired military officer also serves as Islamabad Editor for an American virtual think-tank, and that the chairman had bragged about the retired officer’s association with the ISI in an interview of September 2010. Additional research uncovered the fact that a former ISI chief recently joined the editorial board of directors of this think-tank.

In fact, the board of advisors for the retired officer’s virtual think-tank is composed entirely of the faculty of National Defence University, media analysts, and retired military officers. One media analyst associated with the think-tank brags in his bio that he has performed “public policy outreach projects as a consultant, serving mostly government clients in the larger Middle East region”.

All of this information only raises further questions. Who are these prolific ‘analysts’ that are filling our newspapers with content and our heads with ideas? Many of them claim to be academics, but they appear to be primarily associated with defence universities and are writing for websites with links to military and intelligence officers.

Do the national media groups that publish commentary by these analysts verify the backgrounds and affiliations of these so-called analysts? Do we even know that some of these analysts exist? If so, why do the media groups not inform their readers of these authors’ associations with the military intelligence establishment?

We should also ask why journalism has become the favourite retirement hobby for our military and intelligence officers. It seems that there is virtually no end to the number of think-tanks that are paying retired officers to write ‘analyses’ that end up being widely spread in newspapers and websites. And it must be asked who is funding all of these websites and newspapers that are proliferating throughout the country? Surely, all of these respected generals are not donating their time for free.

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions must wait until another day. But one thing is clear: Pakistani media is infested not only with conspiracy theories, but with propaganda rings that seek not to inform but to manipulate. As long as this is the case, media freedom is only an illusion.

The writer is part of the team that runs

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