In September 1987, when Amnesty International issued its annual (1986) report on human rights abuses in 129 nations, it received scant and oversimplified coverage reflecting the anti-Sovietism of the day. Amnesty’s world-spanning report was typically cast in a superpower framework, as US journalists focused on human rights violations in the USSR or in countries out of favor with the Reagan administration. The New York Times (9/30/87), pegging the story on a “don’t trust glasnost” news hook, contrasted persisting problems in the Soviet Union with Gorbachev’s avowals of reform.
But a lot changed during the next year, as superpower tensions eased and Gorbymania took hold. The new spirit of detente was reflected in the way US media covered Amnesty’s 1987 report (released in October 1988). Most journalists cited improvements in the Soviet Union, while some omitted any reference to Soviet abuses — a dramatic shift from the previous year’s emphasis on gulags and “pseudo” perestroika.
The 1987 annual report, the last one issued, cited 135 nations guilty of human rights abuses, a higher number than ever before. Yet among the networks, only ABC World News Tonight (10/4/88) covered it. Anchor Peter Jennings mentioned three countries—Chile, Iraq and Sudan—in his 30-second news story.
If the Amnesty report didn’t get the attention it deserved, it was not for lack of trying. Amnesty distributed its report, a 12-page summary, and a press release to all major media, including correspondents and regional offices around the world. The package also included a media advisory about Amnesty’s rock show, “Human Rights Now,” featuring stars like Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Tracy Chapman, who toured the world raising money and consciousness. In addition, 1988 marked the 40th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which Amnesty’s mandate is based.
Despite the propitious timing, the major news magazines skipped the report, except for Time (10/17/88) which ran a two-paragraph article that referred to “repression of one kind or another” in various countries (“even Switzerland”), while calling Soviet abuses “black marks.” Time noted that Amnesty had criticized the US for cruel treatment of Cuban detainees, but the accompanying photo of smiling Cuban prisoners waving ‘V signs made Amnesty’s concern seem misplaced.
The Christian Science Monitor (10/5/88) and the Washington Post (10/5/88) accorded the 1987 report more coverage than the previous year’s, stressing the worldwide nature of the problem. But the Post, which ran an AP dispatch, buried the story on page 26. The New York Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer also relied on wire stories (naming a handful of abusive governments), rather than their own reporters.
As a general rule, journalists who covered the report did not shy away from mentioning Amnesty’s criticisms of the US, most significantly the use of capital punishment. But only the Boston Globe (10/5/88) and the Chicago Tribune (10/5/88) noted Amnesty’s condemnation of the racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in the US. The Tribune also discussed Latin American death squads in its summary of Amnesty’s 1987 findings.
Some media damned the report with faint coverage. The Wall Street Journal (10/5/88) gave it only two sentences. Yet a few weeks earlier the Journal devoted 18 inches to a story about Amnesty’s rock concert tour. While the New York Times ran a 15-inch article on the report (with instructions for obtaining a copy from Amnesty), it devoted four stories in one week—totalling 39 inches—to the rock tour.
Most news outlets relied primarily on Amnesty’s press release rather than the report itself. Some cribbed from the book jacket, which read: “In at least half the countries of the world, people are locked away for speaking their minds….In at least a third of the world’s nations, men, women and children are to rtured….In scores of countries, governments pursue their goals by kidnapping and murdering their own citizens.”
Nearly every article reprinted these exact words or slight variations. Hardly any attempt was made to elicit reactions from government officials or to analyze whether Amnesty’s findings conflicted with the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights, as was often the case.
One of the few publications that offered in-depth coverage was the Banner Daily Journal, a San Francisco law journal with 3,000 subscribers. A lengthy article by Charles Roberts and Martin Berg discussed the 40th anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration, citing Amnesty International’s charge that the actions of many nations reveal that they regard the UN document as “subversive.” The article mentioned Amnesty’s efforts to get Congress to approve international human rights treaties. It also quoted a State Department official who “declined to comment” on the report, but “defended the death penalty as a deterrent.” The article surveyed abusive practices in numerous countries, listing them by region as the Amnesty report does, unlike most media, which named a few countries at random. If a tiny San Francisco legal daily could produce such a story, why didn’t it happen in major media as well?
Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer based in the New York area.