This study analyzed four months of US and UK media coverage of the parliamentary elections in Pakistan – November 1, 2007 to February 29, 2008.
The world’s media had no lack of choices of what to cover in the lead up to the parliamentary elections in Pakistan:
- A current president run amok
- Civil rights abuses and the suspension of the constitution
- Former leaders chaffing to come back from exile
- Terrorism fomented by al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as home-grown groups
- An assassination of one of the world’s most charismatic women politicians
- A political play for power by the assassinated leader’s husband – a man previously imprisoned on charges of corruption
- The struggle between civilian and military authorities
- The nation as a problematic ally of the United States
- The nation as a nuclear power.
With all of that, it is not surprising that American and British media flocked to Pakistan in the fall of 2007 to cover Pakistan’s state of emergency, and the campaign spectacular of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
- Dorothy was afraid of ‘Lions and Tigers and Bears.’ You should be afraid of ‘Terrorists’ and ‘Islamic Extremists’… or is it ‘Islamic Militants’? Or is it those ‘Islamic Radicals’? Or maybe it’s the ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’? Or perhaps the ‘Islamic Revolutionaries’? Well, it’s the ISLAMIC somebody-or-others! Al Jazeera and The Economist used a pretty light hand in referencing those depicted as the enemy. But all the other 11 news outlets in the study rather indiscriminately spoke about “the Islamic militants that threaten the Western world,” as an editorial in the Christan Science Monitor put it.
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- What do women want? It might be more news coverage. Despite Benazir Bhutto’s bid for prime minister and the wall-to-wall coverage her candidacy and assassination attracted, women in the electorate received almost no mention from media during the 2007-2008 election season.
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- Musharraf was Pres. Bush’s “friend” in Islamabad. As a result news sources centered a sizable proportion of their election coverage on how the election outcome would affect Pakistan’s position in the fight against terrorism.There also was the “democracy” angle of coverage: given the mobs in the street – and the corruption among the politicians – was this a country that could actually appreciate and support democratic institutions?
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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 four months surrounding the 2008 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.
So here you are. It’s the winter of 2007-2008. You’re reading a story about the election campaign in Pakistan, and you see the following terms:
- Islamic Extremists
- Islamic Militants
- Islamic Radicals
- Islamic Fundamentalists
- Islamic Revolutionaries
Are the terms interchangeable? Is there a glossary somewhere that defines them? Who, actually, ARE they, anyway?
And that, of course, is the point. The enemy – for these are all terms used to described the ‘bad guys’ – is some amorphous, faceless, nameless mass. These “Islamic” extremists, militants, radicals, fundamentalists and revolutionaries are all some kind of “terrorist” (a word often mentioned even in the same sentence).
What kind of terrorist are these groups? We usually aren’t told – maybe it’s not known – beyond the obvious modifier of all the collective nouns.
What kind of terrorist? Islamic terrorists.
The militants, extremists, fundamentalists, even terrorists are defined most often only by their religion: not by their ethnic group or their nationality, tribe or party, aggrievement or psychopathy.
What is the takeaway as a result? You should be scared.
A clear difference between the Pakistani election and the other elections in this study was the fact that there was a woman running at the head of a major party. But that was it, as far as gender coverage differences went: Women received less than half of the coverage men received during the media’s coverage of the Pakistan election – and most of the mentions of “women” in the election coverage were references to candidate and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Stories about subjugated women in burkas that had been common following 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban had essentially disappeared. In 2001 and 2002 the stories about newly empowered women who were throwing off the veil or returning to schools were a key way in which international news outlets signaled a change in the political climate in Afghanistan and the border territory shared with Pakistan. Media drew explicit links between the aspirations of women to live personally freer lives and the country’s interest in institutionalizing freedom and democracy. With the collapse of many of those hopes, news outlets retreated from covering those “positive” story of women, on occasion for more somber stories, or more generally just retreated from covering the situation of women at all.
What’s odd about the lack of coverage of women during the months of the election campaign, however, was that both US and UK news outlets expressly noted the gender issue, introducing Benazir Bhutto as the “female prime minister of Pakistan,” for example, or as “the first woman to lead a Muslim country.”
News outlets also quoted Bhutto herself about how her gender was an asset: “A pro-Taliban Pakistani militant commander, Baitullah Mehsud, has already threatened to send suicide bombers to attack Bhutto because of her strong support for the fight against terrorism,” wrote the New York Times on the eve of her return to Pakistan. “Bhutto hit back with a strong warning herself in words that few politicians in Pakistan would dare use. ‘I do not believe that any true Muslim will make an attack on me because Islam forbids attacks on women, and Muslims know that if they attack a woman they will burn in hell,’ she said.”
But other Pakistani women? They were essentially invisible in the coverage.
Media generally depicted those in the streets of Pakistan as roiling, manipulated masses, of one charismatic (or demagogic) leader or another at the same time as they wrote that Musharraf “is now a central part of Pakistan’s instability,” in the words of the Economist in early November 2007:
“The cancer of extremist violence has spread from the lawless tribal areas where Pakistan blurs into Afghanistan to the neighbouring parts of Pakistan proper, and beyond. Last month’s carnage in Karachi at a procession celebrating the return from exile of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, emphasised that nowhere in Pakistan is free of the threat. Nor, such is the involvement of Pakistan-trained terrorists in attacks in the West, is anywhere else. The radical mullahs of the border areas people the West’s worst nightmares: a ‘Talibanised’, nuclear-armed Pakistan.” [emphasis added]
The Bush administration saw Musharraf and Pakistan as an essential ally in the “War on Terror,” and news sources as a result centered a sizable proportion of their election coverage on how the election outcome would affect Pakistan’s position in the fight against terrorism.
As a result, outlets wrote both about what might be “good” for Pakistan (strong democratic institutions, new leadership) and what would be “good” for the “West.” (continued support from a known ally in an region where Americans had few supporters). As the Guardian noted, “There is certainly an openness to Pakistan’s dictatorship compared with other Islamic states, and some Westerners have appeased Musharraf as ‘our’ dictator, operating a ‘doctrine of necessity’.”
How did that affect how news outlets covered the election?
Media worked the “democracy” angle somewhat as they had in the 2005 elections in Iraq: was this a country that could actually appreciate and support democratic institutions?
Pakistan, though the victim of several coups since its independence, was no stranger to open elections. But because the Bush administration’s attention to Pakistan was wrapped up in its Middle East/”War on Terror” foreign policy, American news outlets focused on the impediments to a democratic electoral process in Pakistan.
British outlets, whose audiences were more casually familiar with Pakistani politics because of years of coverage of South Asia, offered more coverage of the parties and their political stances (and the election’s count and recount and contested count), and less reportage on the concept of a democratic “election” itself in Pakistan.
But all the media spoke far more often about the political leaders at the heads of the various parties – i.e. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – than about the parties themselves and their platforms. The Washington Post, for example, noted that “Islamic militants viewed [Bhutto] as a dangerously secular figure who was essentially the Western candidate for Prime Minister.” and mentioned her by name far more often (816 times throughout the coverage looked at for the study) than her People’s Party (mentioned 136 times in the coverage). Similarly the Financial Times mentioned Bhutto 857 times, while referencing her People’s Party by name only 159 times.
And none of the outlets spent much time covering the voters. Considering there was a major presidential race underway in the U.S. in which the youth vote was seen to be a pivotal force, it was surprising to discover how little coverage there was of Pakistan’s youthful demographic, despite the mass rallies – and riots– held by highly politicized young voters. (Lawyers, journalists and other professional groups also called rallies, which did receive some attention.)
One exception to that was discussion on NPR between reporter Michele Norris and Imran Khan, the leader of one of Pakistan’s minor parties:
NORRIS: I understand that you’re making yet another appeal to young people in Pakistan to begin street protests, perhaps even set up hunger strike camps on campus. If they don’t take to the streets en masse, what will that mean for you?
Mr. KHAN: Michele, the way the country is heading, if people lose faith in the democratic system, they eventually going to pick up the gun when there’s so much injustice in the society. So I’m appealing basically to the younger people that unless they move, they’re not going to be able to change their destiny. They will not be able to (unintelligible) up this mafia, which is controlling them and destroying their future.
NORRIS: That’s Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan speaking with us after his release today from prison.