Jul 1 1989

Double Standard on Press Freedom

Few topics are of greater concern to the US media than freedom of the press. Their treatment of this topic thus provides a useful test of factors that shape the media product. Specifically, by comparing the reaction to abuses by US friends and US enemies, we can determine the relative weight of journalists’ professed values of independence versus their subservience to US foreign policy interests. I will keep largely to the two “papers of record,” but the conclusions are far more general.

Discussion of freedom of the press in the past decade has been dominated by one issue: the treatment of La Prensa in Nicaragua, which has aroused more–and surely more irate–coverage than any other case, probably more than all such cases combined. No crime of the Sandinistas has elicited more outrage than their suspension of La Prensa in 1986 immediately after the congressional vote of $100 million for the Contras, a virtual declaration of war as the Reaganites happily proclaimed, and a sharp rebuff to the World Court, which had just called upon the US to terminate its “unlawful use of force” and illegal economic warfare. La Prensa publisher Violeta Chamorro was given an award by the Neiman Journalism Foundation at Harvard for her courageous battle for freedom of speech. Under the heading, “A Newspaper of Valor,” the Washington Post (3/29/87) added its applause, commenting that Chamorro and her newspaper “deserve 10 awards.”

In the New York Review of Books (11/26/88), Murray Kempton appealed for financial aid for the brave struggle of La Prensa‘s owners and editors; such gifts would supplement the funding provided by the US government, which began shortly after the Sandinista victory in 1979, when President Carter authorized the CIA to support the journal. Other media commentary has been abundant and effusive, and the Sandinistas have been bitterly condemned for maltreating this Tribune of the People.

This massive coverage (over a story a week in the New York Times for a 4-year period surveyed) managed to avoid the fact that La Prensa is a unique phenomenon: a major paper dedicated to the overthrow of the government by force, openly identifying with foreign-run terrorist forces, and funded by the superpower directing the attack. Nothing approaching this has been tolerated in Western democracies, even under far less critical conditions. Putting such questions aside, let us ask whether it is civil libertarians passion that motivates the denunciations of the treacherous Sandinistas, or something else.

As a first test, consider the reaction to events in the nearby US client states. In El Salvador, there were two independent newspapers in 1980 when state terror escalated with mounting US support. They were mildly dissident, not agencies of a hostile power. The security forces of the “moderate” Duarte government murdered the editor of La Cronica del Pueblo and destroyed the facilities of El Independiente, driving the owners into exile and leaving the media safely in the hands of the far right. These events merited not a single word in the news columns or editorials of the New York Times, then or since. An op-ed by one of the owners outlined the facts, which elicited little reaction among the passionate advocates of freedom–in Nicaragua.

In Guatemala, “censorship by assassination” eliminated independent media voices, evoking no notable concern in the US. In 1988, an editor returned from exile to test the new “democracy,” braving death threats. His small journal, La Epoca, was soon firebombed by elements of the security forces and he left the country, after declaring in a press conference that freedom of expression is plainly impossible in Guatemala. Neither the Times nor the Post found the matter worthy of report or comment, though casual references appeared weeks later.

Turning elsewhere, there is no reaction to repression in the Western democracies of a sort that arouses so much ire in Nicaragua, under threat of destruction. In 1988, when congressional liberals and media doves were berating the Sandinistas for harassment of  the media and political opposition, and calling for escalation of the military attack if this display of commuist totalitarianism did not cease forthwith, the government of France prohibited the sale, circulation and distribution of a Basque book on grounds that it “threatened public order.” The French government also banned a journal of Algerian dissidents because it “might harm the diplomatic relations of France with Algeria.” The director of a Basque journal was sentenced to twenty months in prison by the French courts for having published an “apology for terrorism.”

Meanwhile the Spanish courts fined a Basque radio station for insults to the King on a call-in radio show and the government brought three people to trial on charges of “publication, circulation and reproduction of false information that might disturb public order.” These are among many other cases of punishment of public statements and cancellation of peaceful demonstrations by Basques.

Such events arouse no civil libertarian passions, no call for harsh retribution by the guardians of democratic principles. No one pointed out the hypocrisy when Francois Mitterand produced a stirring pronouncement about France’s profound commitment to freedom of expression, on the occasion of the death threat to Salmon Rushdie.

The response to Israeli practices questions provides a particularly sharp test of the questions we are considering. The leading recipient of US aid, Israel is lauded by the New York Times (2/19/88) as  a stellar democracy, even “the symbol of human decency.” Let us compare these characteristic accolades with the factual record.

Shortly after the destruction of Guatemala’s La Epoca in 1988, Israeli  forces raided the offices of a leading Jerusalem daily, arresting its managing editor Hatem Abdel-Qader and jailing him for six months without trial on unspecified security. The were no editorial denunciations or calls for retribution, in fact, no report at all in the Times or Post. Unlike Violeta Chamorro, who has never faced any such prospect, Abdel-Qader does not “deserve 10 awards,” or even one,  or even a line.

Just as La Prensa was suspended by the Nicaraguan government in 1986, Israel permanently closed two Jerusalem newspapers on the grounds that “although we offer them freedom of expression…it is forbidden for them to exploit this freedom in order to harm the State of Israel.” We believe in freedom of the press, the government asserted, but “one has to properly balance freedom of expression and the welfare of the state.” The closure was upheld by the High Court, which ruled that “it is inconceivable that the State of Israel should allow terrorist organizations which seek to destroy it to set up business in its territory, legitimate as they may be”; the government had accused these two Arab newspapers of receiving support from hostile groups. The Times and Post had nothing to say, no report, no comment.

As La Prensa was reopened in 1987, Israel closed a Nazareth political journal (within Israel proper) on grounds of its “extreme nationalist editorial line,” and shut down an Arab-owned news office in Nablus. The High Court upheld the closing of the Nazareth journal on the grounds of an alleged connection between the journal and “terrorist organizations.” The press reported nothing; Times Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Thomas Friedman chose the day of the closing of the Nablus news office to produce one of his regular odes to freedom of expression in Israel. In early 1989, another Nazareth weekly was closed by the government. A news conference by its editor at the national press building in Jerusalem merited no report. Again, civil libertarians kept their silence.

While Arabs are the usual targets of Israel’s draconian media laws, Jews are not immune. Three jailed Jewish editors of the banned newspaper Derech Hanitzotz were adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International in April 1989. When the dovish Progressive List sought to broadcast a campaign advertisement in 1988 showing an interview with Arafat announcing that he accepts UN resolutions 242 and 338, recognizing Israel’s right to live in peace, Israeli High Court Justice Goldberg ruled it illegal, stating: “From the time when the government declared that the PLO is a terrorist organization, television is permitted to produce only broadcasts that conform to this declaration and present the PLO in a negative manner as a terrorist organization.”

Commenting, attorney Avigdor Feldman writes: “The logic is iron-clad. State television [there is no other] is not permitted to broadcast a reality inconsistent with government decision.” Here, silence reigns.

If Nicaragua were to behave in the style of this “symbol of human decency,” the opposition would long ago have been jailed or expelled and La Prensa would be a dim memory. But one finds little reference in the US media to the severe constraints on expression in Israel since the state was founded. It was not until the violent suppression of the Palestinian uprising from December 1987 that even cursory notice was taken of these practices. In the Times there has been virtually nothing; it requires considerable audacity for former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal to assert in May 1988 that censorship in Israel “deserves and gets Western criticism.” Furthermore, the rare exceptions do not lead to calls for some action on the part of Israel’s leading patron.

The conclusions could hardly be more clear.

FAIR advisory board member Noam Chomsky’s most recent book is Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (South End Press).