Wikipedia Editors Navigate Political Divides In Covering Pakistan's General Elections

There is an apparent challenge among the editors to avoid political narratives of the general elections 2024 when they report on the Wikipedia page

Wikipedia Editors Navigate Political Divides In Covering Pakistan's General Elections

Coverage of the general elections brought significant traffic to Wikipedia’s page, with over 2 million page views since election day. A prominent topic of Wikipedia’s coverage of the elections in Pakistan was about the crackdown on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which caused significant concerns among editors about what to include and what not, for example, whether to mention PTI or even Imran Khan on the main election page, given that the PTI and Imran Khan were officially barred from contesting the polls.

To understand the context of the general elections of 2024, one has to go back to the 2022 constitutional crisis when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from the government through a vote of no confidence by opposition parties which had banded together under the banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Thereafter, began the brief tenure of Shahbaz Sharif as Prime Minister, leading the PDM government till August 10, 2023, a period marked by inflation and a record devaluation of the Pakistani rupee.

Following its ouster from government, the PTI continued to enjoy mass popularity, with its supporters taking to the streets across the country. However, their agitation was punctuated with several controversies, cases, convictions, arrests, the May 9th riots and an attempted assassination attempt on Imran Khan. This background, as well as the decision by the Supreme Court to side with the ECP against allowing the PTI to retain its electoral symbol, asserting that the party had failed to conduct intra-party elections to the commission's satisfaction, caused the elections to be held under unique circumstances, with all forces at play. 

Who is the party leader? This was one of the most confusing questions to answer for contributors to Wikipedia’s page. Many cited Imran Khan’s disqualification and his inability to legally hold any office in the party as grounds for not retaining his name in the infobox about the political parties and their leaders. Instead, it was argued that incumbent PTI Chairman Barrister Gohar Ali Khan should be added here instead, as other parties had been treated similarly in the past, for example, Shahbaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in 2018.

This issue did turn into an editing war, as one editor rightly put it, because many accused one another of being biased and politically motivated. Another argued that not citing Imran Khan as the leader of PTI is “mindless” as the same concept is not applied to Nawaz Sharif, who is written as the leader of the PML-N, a party that has different Individuals in roles such as ‘Chairman’ and ‘President’, both of them below Nawaz in the official website and on its relevant Wikipedia page. 

Another pertinent discussion was about whether to remove the PTI altogether from the election maps as a political party or not because all of its candidates, after being deprived of the ‘bat’ symbol, had to contest the general elections as independents. This caused great confusion during the announcement of results, even on Pakistan's national media. The argument for separate categorisation of PTI-supported independent candidates received editorial support by quoting one of the largest media groups, Reuters, which described the lead of independents as “Imran Khan’s supporters lead". Moreover, one of the largest Indian newspapers, The Hindu, described it as "Independent candidates backed by ex-PM Imran Khan’s party lead", while the New York Times described it as “Pakistan is Stunned as Early Election Results Look Like a Real Race”. It was also supported by the fact that the PTI is a significantly popular political party in Pakistan, perhaps the largest one out of all. This was reflected in the broadcast of media channels on election day. As announcements of the election results were being made, all media channels in Pakistan had a separate candidate box for Independent candidates affiliated with PTI and were openly naming Imran Khan in their discussion, despite there being a de facto ban on using his name on television. 

On the other hand, it was debated that depicting Independent candidates as PTI candidates on Wikipedia would contradict the documented facts and their official status, as the Election Commission of Pakistan classified them as independents on official results notification. Therefore, the Wikipedia page should accurately reflect facts, not the subjective interpretations of editors. 

To maintain objectivity, as well as neutrality, it should only add parties which are participating in the elections as a party. A very pertinent comment here was: “We do not right any wrongs on Wikipedia neither we carry out political agendas, but adding them (PTI) to election boxes while they are not participating as a party would be akin to carrying out their political agenda and would be false information". One of the editors suggested that the consensus among editors here could be based on independent secondary sources, while the ECP official report is just a primary source. 

A lot of pleas were made by editors to acknowledge the unique nature of election circumstances, such as to “cross out the PTI and Imran Khan and put an ‘others’ section in its place and leave a footnote instead to explain what is indeed the legal oddity that exists in Pakistan right now”. In the end, the Wikipedia page did include a separate category for PTI-backed independent candidates in the results section.

Another notable challenge was to write about who emerged victorious in the elections. Normally, after every national election, Wikipedia puts the news on the main page. However, there was confusion this time as both PTI and PML-N declared victory amid intensifying reports of rigging, leading to a failure to reach a consensus among the editors.  

The National Assembly was dissolved on August 10, and as per the Constitution of Pakistan Article 48 (5) “Where the President dissolves the National Assembly, notwithstanding anything contained in clause (1), he shall,— (a) appoint a date, not later than ninety days from the date of the dissolution, for the holding of a general election to the Assembly”.

According to this law, the elections should have been held within 90 days i.e. not later than November 10, 2023, but they were conducted on February 8, 2024. The editors of the Wikipedia page argued about the title of the page “2024 - Pakistan General Election”, as some argued that it was misleading, equivalent to rigging, and it should be the "2023 Pakistan General Election" instead. 

Another challenge for Wikipedia page editors was adding or removing rigging allegations. In the current verison, there is a section on the pre-poll rigging and rigging on the elections day. This inclusion is owed to the fact multiple international media reports on plentiful evidence of ‘rigging’, such as [The Economist] which referred to the delay in election results announcement as “unusual”. Although the Wikipedia page strives to avoid unsubstantiated allegations/accusations, the rigging section became so extensive that they also ended up creating a standalone page for rigging allegations in the 2024 General Elections in Pakistan. 

Lastly, as Shahbaz Sharif was elected as the 24th Prime Minister of Pakistan on March 3, 2024, there were suggestions for editors to change the statement about his appointment with additions such as “despite the PTI-backed independent candidates winning majority seats”. They argue that this would acknowledge the irregularities in the General Elections 2024, when both local and international media are highlighting reports of rigging. However, some argue that many elections in Pakistan before February 8, 2024, have been tainted with allegations of rigging, but that does not change the fact that Shahbaz Sharif was elected with a majority of votes in the Parliament. Furthermore, there are allegations of rigging, not confirmations.

There is an apparent challenge among the editors to avoid political narratives of the General Elections 2024 when they report on the Wikipedia page. For instance, a Pakistan-origin Wikipedia editor "Saqib" found himself embroiled in controversy. Accusations of bias surfaced as he advocated for PTI and Imran Khan's inclusion on the election page, leading to claims that he was a PTI supporter. Meanwhile, his contributions to Maryam Nawaz's biography page prompted accusations of PML-N favouritism.

These events highlight the challenges Wikipedia editors encounter in maintaining neutrality amidst political divisions, often becoming targets of criticism and attacks.