Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate

Ahmed Rashid at the BBC:

_46761828_jamatiprotestafp466 Pakistan is going through a multi-dimensional series of crises and a collapse of public confidence in the state.

Suicide bombers strike almost daily and the economic meltdown just seems to get worse.

But this is rarely apparent in the media, bar a handful of liberal commentators who try and give a more balanced and intellectual understanding by pulling all the problems together.

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.

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.

More here.

I happened to mention this phenomenon to Robin Varghese, and he immediately brought to my attention the following paper published in 1996 by Jack Snyder and close 3QD friend Karen Ballentine:

From “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security, Vol. 21, no. 2 Fall 1996:

ScreenHunter_02 Nov. 26 09.17 We agree that media manipulation often plays a central role in promoting nationalist and ethnic conflict, but we argue that promoting unconditional freedom of public debate in newly democratizing societies is, in many circumstances, likely to make the problem worse. Historically and today, from the French Revolution to Rwanda, sudden liberalizations of press freedom have been associated with bloody outbursts of popular nationalism. The most dangerous situation is precisely when the government's press monopoly begins to break down.(4) During incipient democratization, when civil society is burgeoning but democratic institutions are not fully entrenched, the state and other elites are forced to engage in public debate in order to compete for mass allies in the struggle for power.(5) Under those circumstances, governments and their opponents often have the motive and the opportunity to play the nationalist card.

When this occurs, unconditional freedom of speech is a dubious remedy. Just as economic competition produces socially beneficial results only in a well-institutionalized marketplace, where monopolies and false advertising are counteracted, so too increased debate in the political marketplace leads to better outcomes only when there are mechanisms to correct market imperfections.(6) Many newly democratizing states lack institutions to break up governmental and non-governmental information monopolies, to professionalize journalism, and to create common public forums where diverse ideas engage each other under conditions in which erroneous arguments will be challenged. In the absence of these institutions, an increase in the freedom of speech can create an opening for nationalist mythmakers to hijack public discourse.

More here.