Ahmed Rashid: Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate

Nov 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Uncategorized
Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate about important issues.

Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate about important issues.

Great analysis from Ahmed Rashid on BBC today about the conspiracy industry in Pakistan’s media, and how it’s stifling real debate about the important issues that we’re facing.

Switch on any of the dozens of satellite news channels now available in Pakistan.

You will be bombarded with talk show hosts who are mostly obsessed with demonising the elected government, trying to convince viewers of global conspiracies against Pakistan led by India and the United States or insisting that the recent campaign of suicide bomb blasts around the country is being orchestrated by foreigners rather than local militants.

Viewers may well ask where is the passionate debate about the real issues that people face – the crumbling economy, joblessness, the rising cost of living, crime and the lack of investment in health and education or settling the long-running insurgency in Balochistan province.

The answer is nowhere.

One notable channel which also owns newspapers has taken it upon itself to topple the elected government.

Another insists that it will never air anything that is sympathetic to India, while all of them bring on pundits – often retired hardline diplomats, bureaucrats or retired Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers who sport Taliban-style beards and give viewers loud, angry crash courses in anti-Westernism and anti-Indianism, thereby reinforcing views already held by many.

While some will excuse this sort of thing as “harmless entertainment,” there is a good chance that it is really not as harmless as they might think. The explosion in these conspiracy theory shows has virtually drowned out reasoned debate in the media.

Rashid explains the rise of the conspiracy media:

The explosion in TV channels in Urdu, English and regional languages has brought to the fore large numbers of largely untrained, semi-educated and unworldly TV talk show hosts and journalists who deem it necessary to win viewership at a time of an acute advertising crunch, by being more outrageous and sensational than the next channel.

On any given issue the public barely learns anything new nor is it presented with all sides of the argument.

Every talk show host seems to have his own agenda and his guests reflect that agenda rather than offer alternative policies.

And  shows that these conspiracy theories aren’t just theories, they’re laughable nonsense:

Recently, one senior retired army officer claimed that Hakimullah Mehsud – the leader of the Pakistani Taliban which is fighting the army in South Waziristan and has killed hundreds in daily suicide bombings in the past five weeks – had been whisked to safety in a US helicopter to the American-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

In other words the Pakistani Taliban are American stooges, even as the same pundits admit that US-fired drone missiles are targeting the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan.

These are just the kind of blatantly contradictory and nut-case conspiracy theories that get enormous traction on TV channels and in the media – especially when voiced by such senior former officials.

But with everyone clamoring to shout the most ridiculous nonsense, important discussions are being ignored.

Nobody discusses the failure of the education system that is now turning out hundreds of suicide bombers, rather than doctors and engineers.

Or the collapsing and corrupt national health system that forces the poorest to seek expensive private medical treatment, or the explosion in crime or suicides by failed farmers and workers who have lost their jobs.

Pakistan’s media is finally free. But, as with all freedoms, with media freedom comes responsibility. And here the media is failing us. Chasing the ever-present advertising dollars and fighting each other to boost ratings in the process, TV talk shows and even newspaper editorial boards have become more “entertainment” than information. The people who have the ability to shape the thoughts and opinions of the people, who have the ability to really influence public discussion in a positive way, are acting like clowns in a circus doing whatever is most ridiculous in order to get attention.

But while the media is derelict in its responsibilities, what is the consequence for Pakistan? As Rashid fears, it is is a public that is “confused, demoralised and angry.”

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