This study analyzed three months of US and UK media coverage of the presidential election in Afghanistan – August 1, 2009 to October 31, 2009 – essentially as it was happening.

2009 Afghani presidential election
An Afghan man looks at a newspaper reporting the latest presidential election results at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 20, 2009.      ALTAF QADRI – ASSOCIATED PRESS

The US and UK media almost daily covered the breaking-news stories in the 2009 Afghan presidential  elections, as did, of course, Middle-East based  news outlets such as Al Jazeera:  the candidates, voter registration, the campaigns and rallies, the bombings and attacks.

But beyond the basic coverage of “who” and “when,” however, media across the board focused on how effectively the Karzai government had delivered during its first administration.  How rampantly had corruption and fraud permeated his government and the election process?  What were the dominant political and military alignments, both inside and outside the government?  How would those  influence the outcomes?


  1. The four horsemen of Afghanistan’s election – fraud and corruption, death and terrorism – dominated coverage. For good reason. Fraud, intimidation and corruption were rampant especially in the south of the country where the Taliban was especially strong. And the months surrounding the election saw the highest casualty rates among US forces in the eight years of conflict. But as a result, media spent relatively little time reporting on the “issues” of the election, or for that matter any candidates beyond the incumbent.
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  2. American security, American policy, American military leaders, American presidents: Oh, the ways to look at the election in Afghanistan are many.As was true especially of the 2005 election in Iraq, the world’s media extensively covered this election, in part because the election was framed not only as a pivotal exercise of democracy in a conflict-torn country, but as a referendum on US foreign policy, American military strategy, and the effectiveness (and “decaying leadership”) of the US-supported President Hamid Karzai.
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  3. Women in Afghanistan: It’s no longer about the burka. It’s about freedom. The ability to leave one’s home. To vote. To run for office. To, most simply, be safe from men. The situation of Afghan women has been of concern to media for years: their freedom relative to men has been a marker to evaluate the political health of the country. This election was no different.Media reported on how women were faring: as candidates, voters, wives and daughters, and noted that the trend line was going in the wrong direction. Gains made were being lost.
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The Stack Graphs below trace key trends in what 13 American, British and Arab news outlets had to say during the three months surrounding the 2009 election. The graphics are screen grabs from dynamic charts that can be seen on IBM’s ManyEyes’ site. Click on the charts to go to ManyEyes and see details about the data.


Note the twin peaks of “violence” and “fraud” in this graph of combined media coverage.

There was more media coverage of fraud and corruption in the Afghanistan election than this study’s other four elections combined. And with the exception of the coverage of the 2005 election in Iraq, there was more coverage of war and terrorism as well.

Charges of corruption, stories of intimidation and allegations of fraud dominated coverage leading up to, during and after the August election.

From The Economist to the Christian Science Monitor, NPR to Fox to Al Jazeera, reporters spoke of “massive fraud,” “widespread fraud,” “thousands of fraud complaints,” “rampant fraud” and “‘clear and convincing evidence of fraud.'”

The Times of London alone used the word “fraud” 399 times in its articles.

Yet to the news media’s credit, many advanced a nuanced view even of the corruption of the election process. As an opinion piece in the Guardian, for example, noted:

“Even President Karzai’s role as the incumbent candidate, which was regarded in a range of ways from barely problematic to an outright obstacle to fair elections, had a uniquely positive dimension. The very idea of a serving president being challenged while still in office is a tremendously important legacy for the future of democratic politics in Afghanistan.”

Coverage of fraud shared space with judgments about the war being waged in Afghanistan: it’s “not being won,” it’s “increasingly unpopular,” it’s “brutal” and “devastating.”

The light blue left-hand bars track mention of the word “Taliban” and the darker blue bars track the use of “Karzai.”

The dual focus can be dramatically seen in a graph that tracks media use of the terms “Taliban” and “Karzai.”

The New York Times and the Times of London were the two outlets with significantly more mention of Pres. Karzai than the Taliban, but most of the other outlets mentioned the Taliban “fighters,” “militants,” “insurgency,” (and often in the same virtual breath as Al Qaeda) essentially as often as they mentioned the president – and this in stories selected because they covered the election.

Why? Because security – especially in the Taliban-dominated south – and the country’s ability to host democratic institutions were interlinked. “I don’t think we can be terribly optimistic about the prospects of Afghanistan becoming a modern democracy in the short run, and by that I mean the next couple of decades,” said a commentator on Fox.

One “good” reason for that assessment? The US casualty counts, which were widely reported. Noted Fox, “August was the deadliest month” for US forces “of the entire eight-year war in Afghanistan.” A month later, the casualties surged again. As Fox again reported, “October 2009, it is not even over yet, is now the deadliest month.”


A ManyEyes PhraseNet wordtree of the top 48 words in the New York Times coverage of the Afghanistan election. Note the prominence of words such as “American,” “fraud,” “intimidation,” “violence,” and “women.”

Of course corruption and violence were the realities on the ground, and so it is appropriate that the coverage reflected that. The downside, however, of that coverage was that the US and UK media in general didn’t take the time or space to report on specifically Afghan issues: the US and UK media covered the election in the same stories as they covered policy debates about withdrawing US forces.

Even when the news peg was some breaking story about the events on the ground in Afghanistan, those news outlets in this study often framed them through an American (or “Western”) perspective. They made frequent mention of US engagements in other arenas, comparing, for example, the “war of necessity” against al Qaeda in Afghanistan with the Bush administration’s “war of choice” in Iraq. There was little ongoing coverage of how Afghans might be affected by the election’s outcome, certainly in the long term.

Said the Christian Science Monitor, for instance: “Three wars in Islamic nations – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – now entangle President Obama in ways that would try any American commander in chief.” In other words, according to the news outlets studies, the problems surrounding the election and the war were preeminently “our” problems. “In all three,” said the Monitor, “Mr. Obama’s most trying task isn’t so much on the military side. It is helping those countries – beset with tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions – to fill a democratic vacuum in each one’s elected civilian leadership.”


This graph shows that many media did mention “women” and “girls” relatively frequently in their coverage of the Afghan election – although only about half as often as “men.”

Stories of election fraud and corruption also became stories about the plight of women. Women – and their abuse by men – received significant coverage from many media outlets over the course of the three-month window of reporting on the Afghan election. Noted the Times of London in a Leader column:

“There are, as it is, still serious questions about the integrity of the democratic procedures that are currently being played out. It is widely believed, for example, that the electoral commission is in cahoots with Mr Karzai. There does appear to have been a huge overregistration of voters, especially of women by male relatives. It could be that as many as three million out of the electorate of 17.5 million have been fraudulently registered.”

Over the three months of this study, media referenced the difficult situations of specific women candidates and political activists as well as discussed the general plight of women in Afghanistan. Noted NBC in one show: “Only 10 percent of Afghan girls go to primary school. Only 13 percent of women can read. An Afghan woman dies from childbirth every 27 minutes.” And said an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor: “in the historic clash of radical Islam and women’s rights, no other place could be considered ground zero for such a cause than Afghanistan.”

In the month leading up to the August 20 election, Afghani women took to the streets to protest President Hamid Karzai’s signing of a law “which legalised rape” and included “a clause letting husbands starve their wives if they refuse to have sex.” While not extensively covered by the American media, the drama did get some coverage, especially by the British papers. Wrote The Independent for example:

“The law, which regulates the personal affairs of Afghanistan’s minority Shia community, still includes clauses which allow rapists to marry their victims as a way of absolving their crime and it tacitly approves child marriage. The law sparked riots in Kabul. Hundreds of Shia women took to the streets in protest. They were attacked by mobs of angry men who launched counter demonstrations outside the capital’s largest Shia madrassa.”

The legislation was later sent back to parliament, after The Independent and others picked up the story, and after President Obama described it as “abhorrent,” UK Prime Minister Gordan Brown said Britain would “not tolerate” it, and “other NATO countries threatened to withdraw their troops unless the legislation was drastically re-written,” as The Independent wrote.

Whether in relation to the election and the political sphere or in speaking about life in Afghanistan in general, media across the board reported on how few strides women had made since the fall of the Taliban and the 2004 election that brought Karzai to the presidency. Noted USA Today‘s editors: “Women in particular stayed away [from the polling stations in the August 20 election] in droves because of intimidation from a resurgent Taliban and the evaporation of the rights they had seemed about to gain the last time around.”

Because the IEC failed to recruit enough female staff members, more than 650 women-only polling stations were not open. In certain provinces election monitoring groups and political activists reported women were entirely shut out of the electoral process. As the Financial Times noted, “a few women might have voted in the city, but in the villages not at all.”

Intimidation as well as fraud and corruption kept many women from voting, noted the news outlets: “A particular concern was the notably low turnout of women, who election observer organizations said were disproportionately affected by the violence and intimidation,” wrote the New York Times. “The insecurity also led to greater proxy voting, in which male family members vote for the women, further robbing women of their rights, observers said.”