'Corrections for the Record'

U.S. embassy launches campaign to correct errors in Pakistani media

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 27, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Some reports are deemed "a paranoid fabrication," such as the claim that all Pakistanis are stripped naked in U.S. airports.

Others are "false and malicious," such as the one about the Americans moving Pakistani Taliban leaders to Afghanistan to prepare them for a battle against Pakistan's army.

So says the U.S. Embassy here, which for nearly eight months has issued statements countering every major error about American foreign policy that it finds in Pakistan's boisterous media.

It's a herculean task that embassy officials say has been undertaken by no other U.S. mission in the world -- because nowhere else, those officials say, does U.S. policy face such disdain and misrepresentation.

The statements -- called "Corrections for the Record" -- are issued a handful of times a month. Whether they are effective is hard to measure, though embassy officials express confidence. Taken together, the missives serve as a chronicle of the uphill battle the U.S. government faces in Pakistan in its sometimes clumsy efforts to influence opinion.

Much is at stake. The Obama administration views Pakistan as a crucial partner in its fight against Islamist terrorism, and it has spent the past year trying to convince Pakistanis that the United States is a steadfast, well-intentioned ally. So far the public has not been swayed: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 17 percent of Pakistanis view the United States favorably, and only 8 percent expressed faith in President Obama -- his lowest rating in 22 countries surveyed.

The corrections have challenged widely believed theories in a nation with a penchant for conspiracies: that Americans were behind deadly bombings ("absurd, baseless") or plotting a "massive infiltration" by U.S. Marines of Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal areas ("entirely false").

The correction campaign comes as the media in Pakistan grow in size and influence. As of 2002, there was one state-owned television station in Pakistan. Now there are more than 90 private channels, many of which feature roundtable-style political debate, plus countless newspapers, magazines and journals.

The content is raucous and the journalists are free, within certain nebulous limits; many avoid criticism of the powerful security establishment, though they savage the civilian government. The United States, which is expanding its footprint here, often features as an all-powerful schemer, a depiction embassy officials complain is exacerbated when Pakistani journalists do not seek the American side of the story.

Some observers, though, say the real problem is the two nations' spy novel-like relations. Secrets surround so many aspects of the relationship that the resulting vacuum is easily filled by rumors.

Against that backdrop, some Pakistani journalists say, official embassy denials carry little weight. "Our government does not have a history of giving out information. If the U.S. pulls another Pakistan on the Pakistani media . . . it's only natural they would be hostile," media analyst Adnan Rehmat said. "The hostility stems from this space where secrecy is the norm."

That attitude has been compounded by confirmations -- in the American press -- of reports that initially seemed to be wacky conspiracy theories, said Huma Yusuf, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. Those CIA drones that strike militant mountain hideouts? Turned out they are indeed allowed by Pakistan, despite the government's public denials. The rumors about U.S. troops on Pakistani soil? American officials confirmed in 2008 that U.S. commandos had conducted a ground raid and more recently that about 200 Special Forces are training elements of Pakistan's military.

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