American News and What Really Matters in the 2018 Pakistani Election

Cover Image: Positive British

The current overt and targeted slander of news media by the highest office in the nation warrants protections for our pseudo-branch of government. Free press and freedom of speech are resolute and steadfast ideals and are here to stay. What is sometimes less apparent is the distinct lack of “freedom” in our media. We don't often see the the political narratives they foster foregoing their duties as journalists. They should be upheld to higher standards, to report on what is new and distinct and give full stories rather than limited views. Biased reporting creates harmful rhetoric for members of society who are seen and understood by what others see in the news. American news focuses and omissions frame and perpetually feed the political and cultural canon which should be challenged and altered as people and societies invariably do.

American media coverage of the recent election in Pakistan displays a continuous and trite rhetoric towards politics in Pakistan. The election of Imran Khan and the victory of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf has historical importance for the people of Pakistan, even if not from the political standpoints of the United States. The New York Times, CNN, and others have largely ignored the historic and at times enigmatic election in Pakistan. Most of the election coverage revolved around three main stories: the past of Imran Khan,  opposition to election results, and military involvement in the election. The press outlets insist on sticking to rudimentary and outdated reporting that offers nothing new and does not push the envelope towards a new understanding of a society on brink of a societal change.

The stories revolving around Imran Khan's past life, one he has worked hard to shed since coming into the political sphere, dates back to his days as an international cricket star, beloved and revered all over. The western media has taken grave steps to label Khan as a sex symbol, an image that is long outdated for a man who has just recently married his “spiritual advisor”. The New York Times went as far as to dig up an old interview describing in detail how he flaunted his appeal, as international athletes often do. Such objectification distracts from his relevance to this election and fails to consider why he is so well liked by a majority Muslim nation despite his seemingly promiscuous past. The reason lies clearly in the anti-corruption sentiment which is brushed over and criminally undermined by the publications. A sentence here and there in each article is the only coverage about his anti-corruption efforts, which  have ranged for 22 years and have made him the hero of the people who suffer greatest at corruption practices. The articles associate him with sex, cricket, and “mega-star[dom]”His political career of years, repeating the same message, gets little to no acknowledgment. This should be the leading news coming out of a country in which corruption permeates every level of exchange and has become a moral problem going seemingly unchecked. A candidate running solely on anti-corruption is worthy news coverage especially when his opponents have been notorious and indicted for the very crime.

Many news highlights focused on and presented opposition dissent and rejection of the election results as breaking news, even though  competing political parties have always had objections with elections outcomes. In the past three democratically held elections of 2002, 2008, and 2013, there was dissent and accusations of vote rigging from each opposing party. As the 2013 election was deemed to be credible simply on the merit of the European Union Election Committee, so was the 2018 election after the election day confusion and allegations. The EUEC has since come out with an auxiliary report confirming the fairness of the election process which was deemed enough to validate the contested election of Nawaz Sharif back in 2013. Thus, such reportings are not valid and should not have been forefronted as they were when in the past the election was seen fine.

Two parties led by political family dynasties have shifted power back and forth each election. The victory of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is unprecedented just for the shift in power from the predictable victories, which were often achieved with bought votes. The movement is of “justice”: Insaf translates to justice, and the whole name means Pakistan's Time of Justice. This name was making waves long before election day. The support of the common people, celebrities, and many news publications was with PTI. The inclusion of women, and the widespread enthusiasm of young and marginalized voters is overlooked by American reporting, whereas British newspapers acknowledged the shift and reported on the significance of this election beyond the usual disappointments of an election in Pakistan. The Guardian reports “photographs of long queues of women in burqas”.

In places like Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most economically significant city, sentiments against the locally ruling party of 30 years (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) were boiling over, leading to a reckoning not seen in Pakistani elections before. MQM’s strict chokehold on the citizens invariably led to the win of any other party. That party happened to be PTI with a near clean sweep, as the vibrant city strongly believed in PTI’s message of a Naya Pakistan - “New Pakistan”. Even as an ethnic outsider, not of familial ties and backgrounds which often rule the voting sentiments for many, PTI was able to sweep Karachi. Khan represented for many new voters in Karachi and all across Pakistan “post-ethnic politics” which have been the business of politics for too many decades before. The focus on news should be of this swelling and infectious mantra, the hopes of millions of people, the desperation for a change. This was covered by other news organizations in Britain through direct interviews of voters in Pakistan but not in American media. The omission of new voter voices allows for sympathetic viewpoints towards the people who are quoted which has largely been the opposition to PTI.

Headlines by CNN, New York Times and The Washington Post focusing on three time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, and rejecting elections results are missing the point and not going far enough to understand the historical importance of this election. Polls showed PTI, Imran Khan’s party, to be neck in neck before the election.voter enthusiasm was high thus the governing party could see the tide turning. They were prepared to label any election result not in their favor as fraudulent and meddled. This is coming from the party that has been in power for the last five years and many times before intermittently, so losing power after being internationally disgraced would be the last crux. This is the same party that rejected the Supreme Court decision to indict their top leaders for charges of corruption after the outbreak of the Panama papers. CNN reported the outbreak with the Sharif family as the only ones with quotes and viewpoints presented. The privileged point of view was that of the result being politically motivated and not a just conviction after decades of corruption as was seen by the rest of Pakistan excluding hard line PML-N supporters. To keep their party from blame and to prevent losing legitimacy with the voters, the PML-N would be expected to reject the conviction, even if the allegations were true. Such allegations have been made against the Sharif family for decades, long before the rise of Imran Khan and his anti-corruption, with little to no criminal conviction. The corrupt Sharif family has long been a recognized and acknowledged trope in Pakistani politics, Nawaz Sharif’s own supporters admit to overlooking his criminal enterprises for the sake of new roads and infrastructures being built in Lahore, the central hub of N Leagues power and political benevolence. This is not reported in the profiles covering Sharif.

The political dynasty that has drained the country and is viewed by the people as a necessary evil to suffer for having roads should be morally reprehensible to the ideals of democracy of the West. The omissions and shifted narrative, privileging of certains sides shows doesn’t show the story that should be forefronted, much less the reality of the election.

The military involvement in the election, military presence at polls and threats to party members has also always been the case. Elections in Pakistan are far from the democratic ideal we Americans like to pretend we have accomplished. Influence is present in all forms, from military restricting news outlets and having a dominant presence in the political sphere to family dynasties buying votes with patronage right before the elections. The political role of the military in Pakistan is a way to keep the country functioning with terrorist threats all around. Many citizens see the military as a positive, the only institution strong enough to keep Pakistan independent and protected from the threats of India to the east, and the western powers from the West, as well as the destabilizing rogue cells on the western border. New York Times and other major news outlets repeatedly pushed military involvement as invalidating the entire election to be corrupt and void. Such a focus also overlooks the historic military presence that will realistically and unfortunately for the Pakistani democratic cause take decades more to justify with the other branches of government. Until a lasting and just branch establishes itself beyond an individual or a family, the military will not ease back. Military presence is a necessity to save from a power vacuum that has decimated countries previously that arises from corrupt and unfit political leaders. Military presence cannot be viewed in the same manner as it is in the United States, thus applying the same condemnation to military involvement in elections is unfair and surface level reporting. The Pakistani military controlling affairs is not new and not the story that should be promulgated over and over again as with all past elections. What makes this new and interesting is as has already been discussed, the new voters, the undisputable push for anti-corruption, the pledges of being better citizens taken on by youth on social media, the artists finding themselves politically active and voicing the need to vote in this new election, if not these then certainly the parallels between the American and Pakistani elections of 2018.

Why do the American news agencies choose to stick with the same story as can be dug up in their archives from each election past? The United States has been working "with" Nawaz Sharif and his party for a long time since the 1990's – the first time he was elected as PM. It would be most convenient to keep him in power and not a newcomer who is blatantly against American intervention in Pakistan. Imran Khan represents a shift from the subordinate role of the Pakistani government in front of US interests. Khan supports political avenues instead of military might to deal with the pesky rogue elements in the Pakistan Afghanistan border region. Thus he is far from the ideal prime minister in power to have even the slightest control over the nuclear Pakistan military. American interests have lied with the former government that allowed rampant American control over the region with drone strikes at a peak in 2010. This is why Khan’s image is pushed as unreliable, not experienced even though he’s had a government established in KPK since 2013 and has brought some serious changes, police reforms, reforms in education health sector, and planted close to 1.1 billion trees.

This election was different to the people of Pakistan, if not for the military and allegations of fraud but for the rhetoric established and grasped by the public. That wasn’t reported or explored because readership views already reflect the condemning image of Pakistan. Anything else will not be supported by the American public or the Pentagon. It falls short of their interest to highlight the hopeful buds that are sprouting in Pakistan. They have an incentive to dehumanize and belittle this movement, as it goes along with viewers’ perceptions of Pakistan - Muslims, military, and terrorism.