Selig Harrison and Pakistan Media

Aug 31st, 2010 | By | Category: Foreign Media

Selig HarrisonA column in the New York Times newspaper by American commentator Selig Harrison has raised quite a bit of media attention around a conspiracy theory that the government is giving Gilgit Baltistan to China, a claim publicly denied by the Foreign Office. As with most conspiracy theories of this magnitude, a little basic research demonstrates that Mr Harrison and his claim of Pakistan ceding territory to China are unreliable.

While it took me all of 15 minutes to discover that Mr Harrison’s reputation precedes his remarks in the US, our own media seems to be more than willing to repeat the wildest conspiracies without the least effort in fact-checking. More troubling is that the Mr Harrison’s conspiracy seems to have been fed to him in part by Pakistani media.

The first suspicion I had about Mr Harrison’s claim was that it was simply too outrageous to be believed without some proof. Of course, Mr Harrison provides none in his column.

Most troubling, as I said, is that Mr Harrison’s claim appears to be based at least in part on rumours by unnamed journalists. He says that his sources for this conspiracy theory are:

…reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers…

First, what foreign intelligence sources? While it would certainly be in keeping with journalistic practice to hold confidential the name of an informant, it is not unusual to at least report what agency the informant is associated with. Without playing into alternate conspiracy theories, it is well documented that intelligence agencies partake in disinformation campaigns designed to sow discord in targeted nations. Considering the location in question, is it not important to know which foreign intelligence agency is making these claims?

Second, it is quite troubling that some representatives of Pakistani media have been feeding such stories to foreign reporters. Considering Mr Harrison’s background (as we will explain below), it is worrisome that these Pakistani journalists went to Mr Harrison to promote their story. Certainly Mr Harrison will refuse to expose who these Pakistani journalists are, which is too bad. While there is reason to protect the identities of “whistle blowers” against official corruption for fear of their safety, there is little public good gained by allowing journalists to spread unsubstantiated rumours.

But let’s look at Mr Harrison’s claims directly. Many of Mr Harrison’s claims are nothing more than hysterical conjecture.

Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred. Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be used for missile storage sites.

I could not help but think of the famous American claims about Iraq’s “aluminum tubes”. The idea that China, which shares a border with China, would need to store missiles under Gilgit-Balochistan makes no sense. Unfortunately for Mr Harrison’s conspiracy theory, though, building tunnels for a gas pipeline would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for an increased presence of Chinese workers in the region. It’s just not quite as scary.

Of course, this is not the first claim that Mr Harrison has made about the break up of Pakistan. The Pakistan Policy Blog noticed this trend of Mr Harrison’s back in 2008, noting that “Selig Harrison has made a career of predicting the imminent break-up of South Asian states”. In 2006, Mr Harrison reported for the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique that Baluchistan and Sindh were preparing to quit the nation.

While there is no denying that we have seen groups of separatists and ethnic strife in the country (what country has not experienced such?), Mr Harrison’s reports consistently take on a tone of imminent national dissolution that is simply not supported by the facts. Four years after Mr Harrison’s prediction in the French media and no such calamity has occurred, of course. Yet Mr Harrison continues to predict the breakup of Pakistan. Perhaps he believes that if he simply wishes hard enough, it will come true?

Joshua Foust, a respected American journalist and intelligence consultant on South Asia, wrote a scathing profile of Mr Selig Harrison in 2008 in which he calls Mr Harrison’s writings on Pashtunistan, “silly, over-hyped nonsense” and says,

As it is, Harrison casts a very unconvincing shadow on the discourse over the Pashtunistan issue. It merits serious discussion—separatist movements always do. But placing them in their proper context, both historically and socially, is just as important as making a case you’ve been trying to make for years. As it is, Harrison seems to rely on mischaracterization, hyperbole, and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (to borrow a phrase and avoid slinging charges of Orientalism)—hardly the stuff of a world-renowned regional expert. I hesitate to accuse Harrison of wearing ideological blinders, as I can’t really figure out what his ideology is, simultaneously blaming the West for subjugating the Pashtuns while granting them unlimited power to unite, declare independence, and bring down that very same West.

But that’s par for the course for most writing these days on Pashtuns, and even on Afghanistan. It just doesn’t add up. My question here, though, is the same as it was for Ann Marlowe: who the hell keeps paying him to write? I have to assume it is simply the ignorant, those more aware of his reputation than his recent scholarship, without the means to fact-check what he writes so long as it confirms their biases. That is a major loss to the field, that rigor. But, as with the curious longevity of Thomas Johnson (whom, ironically enough, Marlowe has called “brilliant”), it doesn’t seem to be that unoriginal, either.

Today, of course, Mr Harrison is not talking only about a separatist rebellion, but he has added a twist by claiming the government is “handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China”. His evidence? Chinese PLA workers building roads and bridges.

Mr Harrison’s column, it is important to note, appears on the Opinion page of the New York Times. It does not even pretend to be an objective or investigative report, nor should it. Mr Harrison makes clear his position when he writes,

What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.”

This is a position in direct conflict with the official positions of the US and Pakistan. It is simply Mr Harrison’s opinion, and possibly an attempt to change the direction of Pakistan-US relations. Something, it seems, he has been trying to do for years.

An opinion column with no evidence, a discredited author, and sources from unnamed foreign intelligence agencies. One has to ask why the Pakistani media has been so ready to republish such rubbish. In fact, The News republished the piece in full today. The Nation makes note of the author’s “obsessive anti-Pakistan posture”, but then reproduces most of the author’s claims.

Worse still, who are the members of the Pakistani media who are feeding such conspiracy theories to foreign journalists? This blog has been criticized in the past for suggesting that there is a cycle in which Pakistani conspiracy theorists posing as journalists feed outrageous stories to the international press, who then repeat them, giving them the credibility needed to be repeated yet again in mainstream Pakistani media. But we see here an example of exactly this.

Actions of the media have consequences. Those consequences can be good – as when the media uncovers evidence of corruption or brings attention to pressing issues. Or they can be bad – as when the media causes confusion and distraction by placing more importance on sales than on research and facts. While we cannot control what discredited commentators like Selig Harrison write in the international media, we should not be fueling a cycle of misinformation and conspiracy theories. We should be setting an example of journalistic excellence that provides honest and accurate information at home and abroad.

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