Plots in Pakistan's press
By Manzoor Ali | Foreign Policy
July 15, 2010
Wearing army fatigues and a red cap, Zaid Hamid is perhaps Pakistan's best-known television personality. The strategic affairs expert, who coined the term 'Hindu Zionist' to describe the hypothetical Indian and Israeli nexus against Pakistan, has become a household name across the country for his conspiracy theories on economic terrorism and Indian-U.S.-Israeli plotting. His Facebook page currently has a following of 66,000, among them students of expensive schools and even pop singers and fashion designers. Whether it is explaining Taliban militancy, Pakistan's ever-present electricity crisis, Blackwater's involvement in planning terrorist attacks, or plans for the U.S. to take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons, conspiracy theorists call the shots in Pakistan.
Pakistan's booming television industry, allowed to operate by ex-dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, helped lead to his downfall. The country's vibrant Urdu press, which outsells its English-language counterparts in most areas of the country, also helps shape public opinion, with its small army of retired military officers and civilian officials dominate the opinion pages to air their misgivings and concerns. It seems that anti-Americanism on the op-ed pages sells to Pakistanis, who are among the most anti-American people in the world.
Nowhere is Pakistan's conspiracy-prone media as virulent as when describing the U.S.'s role in Afghanistan. Pakistani outlets have painted the United States as an ‘American grand design' aimed at controlling Central Asia's energy resources, depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons, and threatening China's emergence as a competitive superpower. India's interests in Afghanistan are also the subject of much speculation, as the threat from Pakistan's eastern border coupled with a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan is enough to give heartburn to many Pakistani commentators. Militancy in Pakistan's northwest is also seen as a conscious effort by the purported American-Israeli-Indian alliance to undermine Pakistan's stability.
Late last year, a former Army chief Mirza Azam Beg startled many by alleging that U.S. forces airlifted Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud to Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, following a military offensive in South Waziristan. Many also believe that suicide bombers are trained by the U.S. and Indians, as the TTP does not have the capacity to generate these attackers. In April, a senior leader of mainstream religious party Jamaat Islami (JI) blamed Blackwater for a suicide attack on its rally in Peshawar and asked the Pakistani government to stop cooperating with U.S. Many Pakistanis -- and the Taliban, incidentally -- attribute the worst suicide bombings in Pakistan to Blackwater. None of these allegations have ever been proven true.
With the wash of conspiracy theories floating around in the Pakistani media, it is little surprise that 59 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as the greatest threat for Pakistan, followed up by 18 percent for India and a mere 11 percent for the Taliban. It is impossible to escape the irony of the Taliban enjoying more trust from the Pakistani public, after claiming deadly suicide attacks across the country, than the United States, which reimburses Pakistan more than $1 billion a year for military operations and has promised $7.5 billion over the next five years in nonmilitary aid.
To help counter this flood of conspiracy, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty launched a Pashtu-language radio station called Radio Mashaal in January of this year, to supplement the reach of Voice of America's Dewaa Radio in 24/7 coverage of the region. (VOA's partnership with the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, incidentally, was described by The Nation as the Pakistani government "allow[ing] the United States to expand its Afghanistan-based media propaganda network...in a clandestinely signed deal that is bound to generate more anger when the Pakistani government that is yet to fully recover from accusations of a sellout to intrusive American aid conditions.") VOA also airs an Urdu-language news program five days a week on Geo News, Pakistan's biggest television network. VOA's Urdu radio broadcasts 12 hours a day of news to millions on Radio Aap ki Dunyaa, and claims almost 12 percent of the population listens or watches its Urdu programs. And the U.S. embassy in Islamabad has for nearly nine months issued "Corrections for the Record" a few times a month to combat the persistent mythology in Pakistan's press. But further U.S. efforts to counter misconceptions in the Pakistani press could easy fall prey to a single conspiracy theory.
Manzoor Ali is a reporter with Pakistan's Express Tribune.