The New York Times is an institution in journalism. Published continuously for over 160 years, the Times has won 104 Pulitzer Prizes – more than any other news organization. In 2009, one of those Pulitzer Prizes went to a team that included Pakistan correspondent Jane Perlez for their coverage of America’s deepening military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With this background, how is it that The New York Times keeps getting Pakistan so wrong?
In her latest article, Many in Pakistan Fear Unrest at Home, Jane Perlez suggests that Pakistan is on the brink of takeover by Islamists, comparing the political climate today to Iran in 1979. But is this really an accurate description of Pakistan, a nation that only recently held massive pro-democracy street demonstrations, overthrew a military dictator, and elected a democratic government that for the first time includes all ethnic groups and major political factions at either the state or federal level? Tunisia and Egypt may be shedding the yoke of autocracy, but Pakistan achieved this years ago.
Since 2008, of course, Pakistan has been hit hard by the global economic downturn, been ravaged by devastating floods of historic proportion, and lost thousands of citizens to attacks by terrorist groups. Despite these challenges, the democratic government has remained resilient, implementing political reforms to strengthen the democratic process and the rule of law. So why is The New York Times comparing 2011 Pakistan to 1979 Iran? It turns out the answer may lie in Ms Perlez’s sources.
Jane Perlez has quoted Mr Farrukh Saleem quite regularly over the past few years, though she introduces with different titles in different articles. In her latest article about the possibility of an Islamist putsch, Farrukh Saleem is “a risk analyst”. Last November, Ms Perlez cited him as “a political analyst” in an article about political violence in Karachi. A month earlier, Mr Saleem was “executive director for the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad”. The one constant in Mr Saleem’s CV is his affiliation with The News, an English-language newspaper that has received international attention for its virulent anti-government propaganda.
In fact, Mr Farrukh Saleem appears in a 2009 article by Jane Perlez praising opposition leader Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N party. Here Saleem is referred to only as a newspaper columnist. Earlier, Farrukh Saleem is quoted by Jane Perlez saying that President Asif Zardari “has an unending desire to control all of Pakistan.”
Later that year, of course, President Zardari transferred power over the nation’s nuclear arsenal to the Prime Minister, and a few months after that signed the 18th Amendment further devolving power that had been consolidated under military dictators. For someone with an unending desire to control all of Pakistan, the president appears to be giving a surprising amount of his power away. Despite this record, Jane Perlez continues to present Farrukh Saleem as an objective “analyst”.
Then there is Ms Perlez’s other go-to source for analysis of Pakistan: Jahangir Tareen. According to Ms Perlez, Mr Tareen is “a reformist politician”. But what claim to the title of “reformist” does Mr Jahangir Tareen actually have? After all, this is the same Jahangir Tareen that served as Minister of Industries and Special Projects under the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf – a fact certainly known to Jane Perlez as she has been quoting him in her articles as such since at least 2008.
Ms Perlez quotes Jahangir Tareen blaming rich politicians for failing to address the economic needs of the people without mentioning the irony that he is both rich and a politician himself in the opposition party PML-Q. Jane Perlez also fails to mention that Jahangir Tareen’s CV includes such “reformist” tendencies as serving as a cabinet minister during the corrupt Musharraf regime that squandered foreign aid money while incubating jihadi militias. Today, Mr Tareen warns the Times reporter that Islamist forces “will sweep into power”, but Jane Perlez conveniently ignores her sources background and fails to provide her readers important context that might raise questions about his credibility.
Certainly Pakistanis are frustrated with unemployment, inflation, and ongoing attacks by Islamist militant groups. And there do exist residual effects of an institutionalization of Islamism carried out by the regime of 1980s dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and reinforced by the former boss of Ms Perlez’s friend Jahangir Tareen, Pervez Musharraf. But Pakistan’s democratically elected government has proven resilient, and by-election results since 2008 have not revealed any increased support for Islamist parties.
When the curtain is drawn on the election booth, the people of Pakistan consistently reject Jamaat-i-Islami’s candidates and policies. Jane Perlez’s article may represent the prejudices of her rather compromised (and seemingly few) regular sources, but it does not represent the aspirations of the Pakistani people. Let us not forget that fewer than six months ago, Jane Perlez predicted a military coup in Pakistan. That, too, never came to pass.
Jane Perlez’s fearmongering on Pakistan notwithstanding, the democratic system is maturing and growing stronger – a fact evidenced by the unprecedented cooperation between the opposition parties and the coalition government in defense of political stability. It is true that religious parties organize street protests with thousands of participants. But these are demonstrations of frustration, not political support. If Ms Perlez truly believes that the Pakistani people believe in “the failure of representative democracy”, perhaps she should expand her social circle beyond those who have built careers trying to derail it.
The question for The New York Times is whether or not Jane Perlez is actually providing investigative reporting on Pakistan or simply phoning her few friends for juicy quotes to pad sensationalist articles. Following her reporting over the years, Times readers would come away with two things: a close familiarity of Mr Farrukh Saleem and Mr Jahangir Tareen, and very poor understanding of Pakistan.