A wave of exhilaration surged through the crowd when the first contingent of Chinese workers joined student hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. Three thousand students started their protest in May, two days before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for historic talks with China’s rulers. By the time Gorbachev left Beijing, mass demonstrations had spread to 20 Chinese cities. They kept coming in droves, young and old, farmers, teachers, more workers, journalists, even the police, singing “The Internationale” and “We Shall Overcome.” Millions of people were in the streets, celebrating, marching for human rights, empowered by their wildest hopes and dreams as they faced down a reluctant army.
Tears of communitarian joy turned to terror and grief with the ensuing crackdown. Scenes of tanks crushing makeshift barricades and mangled bodies lying in pools of blood were seen on television across the globe, as foreign journalists continued to sneak footage out of the country via satellite until the plug was pulled by Chinese censors. Working ’round-the-clock with hardly any sleep, US journalists provided a riveting chronicle of events as they unfolded. But the US media, which excelled at blow-by-blow descriptions, were unable to give a cogent analysis of why China was suddenly on the brink.
Instead we heard platitudes about Deng Xiaoping’s vaunted economic reforms, which supposedly liberated China from the dungeons of Maoism and ushered in a new era of free enterprise and capitalist incentives. But political reform was lagging, so students got upset. “The Chinese people are furious with a system of government that promised utopia and has delivered hell,” explained Claudia Rosett, editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. “Their only relief has come by way of Mr. Deng’s economic liberalization of the past 11 years” (WSJ, 5/22/89).
Far from relief, Deng’s economic liberalization delivered record-high 30% inflation, unemployment, hunger, and rampant corruption among privileged elites. A relatively stable society in the countryside, where 80% of the population resides, was turned upside down, resulting in the mass migration of peasants to beleaguered urban centers. The social dislocation caused by Deng’s reforms was even cited in the official Beijing People’s Daily, the nation’s leading newspaper, as a key reason why workers flocked to the side of student protesters. Among popular protest slogans were: “Eradicate privilege” and “Down with official racketeering.” The huge demonstrations in China were in many ways a repudiation of the government’s “free-market” policies, but the US media, with few exceptions, failed to point this out.
China News Blackout
The massacre at Tiananmen Square was the climax of a momentous human rights drama that had been building for years in China. But the US media had rarely mentioned human rights violations in China since the Democracy Wall Movement was crushed in 1979 and its leaders were thrown in jail. “Look at Wei Jingshen,” Deng said of a prominent Democracy Wall dissident. “We put him behind bars and the democracy movement died. We haven’t released him, but that did not raise much of an international uproar” (The Progressive, 3/87). Wei Jingshen is still in prison, his exact whereabouts unknown.
Shortly after the suppression of the Democracy Wall Movement, Deng introduced economic and legal reforms. “A wave of euphoria swept through US government and press circles,” recalled Roberta Cohen, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights under Carter. “The enthusiasm for free market initiatives and other reforms became the new rationale for turning a blind eye to the continuing repression in China.” According to the State Department’s 1987 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, between two and five million people languished in Chinese labor camps and prisons. New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield reported on the existence of Chinese gulags when he was based in China in the early 1980s, but there wasn’t much follow up in the US press.
US media remained tight-lipped when President Reagan approved sales of police equipment to China’s internal security force, expanded military ties and encouraged loans and investment, despite serious human rights abuses by the Chinese government. The brutalization of Tibet and the relentless suppression of dissent in China were off the press agenda until late in Reagan’s second term. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, thousands of Chinese prisoners were being tortured, while others faced illegal arrests, unwarranted search and seizure, and other forms of harassment.
Journalists were outraged when Deng & Company imposed harsh press restrictions during the crackdown in June, but US reporters appear to have practiced a form of self-censorship with respect to Chinese human rights violations for nearly a decade. “American administrations yawned at reports of repression of basic freedoms in China…. So, much too often, did American journalism,” A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times (6/13/89) shortly after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Rosenthal’s complaint rings hollow, for it was during his tenure as Times executive editor that reporting on Chinese abuses virtually ceased. No news stories on China and human rights are listed in the New York Times index from 1984 through 1986. Ditto for Time magazine, which selected Deng Xiaoping as ‘Man of the Year’ in 1985. Newsweek managed only one story on the subject for these three years.
The media silence was all the more deafening in light of what transpired in China during this period. Vice-President Bush visited the People’s Republic in 1985, but this provoked none of the concern for political prisoners that journalists displayed when US officials met with Soviet leaders. And another round of student protests was put down in December 1986 by Deng Xiaoping, who stated at the time: “When necessary one must deal severely with those who defy orders. We can afford to shed some blood” (The Progressive, 3/87). This is the man Bush hailed as a “forward-looking” leader.
When Bush visited Beijing again in February of this year, Chinese authorities prevented Fang Lizhi , a prominent human rights advocate, from attending a banquet at the US embassy, even though he had received a highly publicized invitation. President Bush subsequently failed to raise the human rights issue with Chinese officials. The best he could muster was a statement of regret channeled through his press spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater. In a case of too little too late, editorials in major dailies chided Bush for not taking a tougher stand in Beijing (Miami Herald, 2/28/89; New York Times, 3/1/89).
Fang Lizhi, who now resides in the American embassy, went a step further, accusing the US government of practicing a double standard with respect to human rights. Why, he wondered, were US officials reluctant to criticize human rights abuses in China, when the Soviet Union was never treated with such deference? Lizhi might have added other questions: Was it because China had sided with the US in various regional conflicts, supplying arms to the Afghan mujahidin, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, UNITA in Angola, and the Nicaraguan contras? Did human rights take a back seat while US intelligence operated electronic listening posts along the Sino-Soviet border?
The soft treatment of China prior to the Tiananmen massacre raises broader questions about reporting on human rights. Are US strategic interests paramount in determining whether abuses are scrutinized? What other factors influence coverage of human rights issues? Why does the US press remain a quiet spectator in some countries, while violations in other parts of the world receive prominent attention?
In an effort to explore these questions, FAIR undertook an extensive research project on the media and human rights. We interviewed over fifty people, including representatives from ten human rights organizations. We also spoke with reporters, editors, scholars, United Nations officials and former State Department personnel. Most were eager to share their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of human rights coverage; some preferred to talk on a not-for-attribution basis. Although opinions varied on how well the media have performed, there was general agreement on at least one point: If the gravity of human rights violations were the sole factor in determining the amount of coverage that a country received, reporting on human rights would be substantially different.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
We began our investigation in the fall of 1988, shortly after the United Nations General Assembly launched a World Public Information Campaign on Human Rights. The campaign was coordinated by the Human Rights Commission, the principal UN body on human rights. The Human Rights Commission has attracted some press attention in recent years, particularly for its report on Cuba, which the US government instigated. However, as a general rule, little news about the UN’s human rights work reaches the outside world.
But last year offered a great news hook: the 40th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Born in response to the appalling carnage wrought by the Nazis during World War II, this document is the seminal statement of rights to which every person on earth is entitled. Adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration (reprinted in full on pages 38 & 39) affirms that a government’s behavior toward its citizens is a legitimate matter of concern to the international community. It consists of a preamble and 30 articles that set forth fundamental political and civil rights, such as protection from torture, arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; freedom of expression and worship; the right to a fair trial; and the right of peaceful assembly and association. A number of articles address a range of social and economic entitlements, including the right to work; the right to an education; the right to food, clothing, housing and an adequate standard of living.
The Universal Declaration was envisioned not as a binding legal agreement, but as a “standard of achievement” to which all nations should aspire. Over the years it has spawned more than 50 multilateral treaties on a range of subjects, including the rights of refugees, indigenous peoples, minorities, women and, most recently, children. It also formed the basis for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a separate Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which are legally binding for signatory countries.
The 40th anniversary provided a golden opportunity for the UN to spread the word about the Universal Declaration and make the text, which has been published in 80 languages, available to the widest possible audience. In areas where illiteracy is high, the UN broadcast short-wave radio programs in local dialects to inform people of their rights which nearly every country has pledged to respect. “Implementation of this declaration largely depends on the mass media,” explained Jan Martenson, UN Undersecretary-General for Human Rights.
How did the US media report on the 40th anniversary? Among network news programs, ABC’s Nightline (12/9/88) provided the most extensive coverage. Host Ted Koppel interviewed former President Jimmy Carter and Max Sisulu, brother of Zwelakhe Sisulu, editor of the banned anti-apartheid publication, New Nation, who had just been released from a South African prison. But in his summary of the contents of the Universal Declaration, Koppel made no mention of social, economic and cultural rights—an omission in keeping with the dominant tendency in the US to define human rights primarily in civil-political terms.
This pattern of selective reporting on the Universal Declaration was evident in 32 news stories and editorials on the 40th anniversary surveyed by FAIR. Only five newspapers referred explicitly to social and economic rights; two reprinted the declaration in its entirety (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/4/88; Palo Alto’s Peninsula Times Tribune, 12/9/88). Among our sample, the Boston Globe (12/11/88) was the only daily that mentioned the fact that the US government has yet to ratify either the Civil- Political Covenant or Socio-Economic Covenant, which have been adopted by 87 and 91 nations, respectively (including the Soviet Union in both cases).
A New York Times editorial (12/10/88) marking the 40th anniversary spoke of President Reagan’s human rights “conversion” in the waning days of his administration. The editorial praised the State Department for issuing “candid annual reports on human rights.” Said the Times: “There is now an American consensus that a plausible human rights policy has to strive for a single standard of judgment.”
Unfortunately, US media—the Times included—have not applied a single standard of newsworthiness to human rights violations around the world. Instead, coverage has often reflected the geopolitical priorities of the State Department, which is obliged to provide yearly reports on the human rights situation in every UN member state. If these assessments were as “candid” as the Times claimed, it would not be necessary for Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights to publish a detailed critique of the numerous omissions, errors and distortions contained in the State Department’s Country Reports (see sidebar). These annual critiques underscore the difference between the US government’s rhetorical support for human rights and the realities of its foreign policy.
The Human Rights Community
Governments generally are not forthcoming about the status of human rights in their countries. This is not surprising, given that almost every government is guilty of human rights violations of some kind. “Good investigative journalism may occasionally bring abuses to light. But media coverage of human rights tends to be episodic and crisis-oriented,” says Laurie Wiseberg, director of Human Rights Internet at Harvard, an information clearinghouse for some 2000 human rights groups. “Thus it has been the nongovernmental organizations which have assumed the task of providing accurate, timely and non-partisan information about ongoing human rights abuses.”
The best known international human rights organization is Amnesty International. Headquartered in London with 800,000 members worldwide, Amnesty focuses on torture, prisoners of conscience and the death penalty. Its letter-writing campaigns have succeeded in winning the release of people incarcerated because of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or ideological persuasion. “It’s not up to us to analyze the causes of human rights abuse or the ways in which they will ultimately be reversed,” explained Josh Rubenstein, director of Amnesty’s Northeast regional office in the U.S. “It’s for us simply to expose that they exist.”
Media coverage of Amnesty International has increased steadily since 1977, when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Amnesty was mentioned more frequently in the New York Times and the Boston Globe during the past four years than in the previous five. (Between 1980 and 1984, the Times referred to Amnesty 349 times, while the Globe had 388 citations; from 1985 through 1988, the figures were 429 and 413, respectively.) Last year, a lot of publicity was generated by Amnesty’s rock concert tour. Ironically, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal devoted more coverage to the concert tour than to Amnesty’s annual report on human rights violations around the world.
Human Rights Watch—the umbrella organization of Helsinki Watch, Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Africa Watch and the newly formed Middle East Watch—has a broader mandate than Amnesty International. In addition to the core group of rights that guarantee the physical integrity of persons, the Watch Committees are concerned with freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly and association (including labor organizing), and freedom of movement. They also monitor violations by government and opposition forces in situations of armed conflict. And they work closely with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which deals primarily with the administration of justice, the right to due process and a fair trial, the rights of refugees and other judicial issues.
Compared to most human rights groups, the Watch Committees have a high media profile in the U.S. Their publications are often cited by the press; reports by Helsinki Watch, which monitors the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, probably get less attention because so many U.S. journalists have been covering that turf thoroughly. Although Watch Committee analysts are generally pleased with the press they get, their findings are sometimes misrepresented, as in New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger’s overly optimistic account of an Asia Watch report on Indonesia, headlined “Jakarta’s Human Rights Record is Said to Improve” (11/21/88). Actually the situation in Indonesia remained extremely grim, as Aryeh Neier, executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted in a letter to the Times (12/28/88).
The Watch Committees maintain an ongoing dialogue with reporters and editors. After representatives of Americas Watch met with members of the New York Times editorial board, the Times ran an editorial, titled “Peru’s Disappearing Democracy” (12/29/88), which drew attention to the plight of Carlos Escobar Pineda, a special prosecutor who had been investigating disappearances in an area of Peru where human rights violations by the military are prevalent. Escobar had been abruptly relieved of his duties by the government and had reason to fear for his safety. The international attention generated by the Times editorial may have saved his life. An incident like this underscores the importance of media for human rights activists.
At Odds With Uncle Sam
Watch Committee representatives occasionally appear on television and their op-ed columns are picked up by major newspapers. The New York Times has been particularly receptive, publishing 19 op-eds by Helsinki Watch, 19 by Americas Watch, and 6 by Asia Watch between November 1985 and April 1989. But human rights groups complain that things have gotten a lot tighter since Leslie Gelb, formerly a State Department official, took over as op-ed page editor last year.
Washington Post op-ed editors have not been as kindly disposed toward the Watch Committees. Over the years they have published articles by Helsinki Watch, but as a matter of policy the Post rejected submissions by Americas Watch. The Post‘s op-ed editors felt Americas Watch was politically biased. This is a dubious notion given that Americas Watch is part of the same organization, and employs the same methodology, as Helsinki Watch, which isn’t viewed as biased by the Post. The difference, of course, is that Helsinki Watch scrutinizes Eastern Europe, while Americas Watch criticizes U.S.-backed regimes in Central America. The Post’s refusal to publish their columns says more about that newspaper’s bias than it does about
Americas Watch. Indeed, the only time Americas Watch made it into a Washington Post op-ed column was when Jeane Kirkpatrick, a regular Post columnist, attacked the group (“The Strange Viewpoint of Americas Watch,” 3/14/88).
Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward Americas Watch was shared by Reagan administration officials and certain journalists who sought to discredit the findings of human rights groups when they undermined U.S. policy. The NewYork Times (9/24/85) quoted a State Department source saying that Americas Watch is “less a human rights organization than it is a political one.” Time magazine (2/27/84) denigrated Americas Watch by describing it as “a controversial group that is often accused of being too sympathetic to the left.”
Morton Kondracke, writing in the New Republic (“Broken Watch,” 8/23/88), acknowledged that Helsinki Watch and Asia Watch generally did good work, and so did Americas Watch when it focused on South America. But Central America somehow was a different matter. According to the avowedly pro-contra Kondracke, Americas Watch favored the Nicaraguan government and the Salvadoran guerrillas. He tried to bolster his argument by quoting from an unnamed “top human rights official” in the State Department, who accused Americas Watch of “intellectual dishonesty” for “exaggerating abuses of the elected government of El Salvador and the contras.” Similar charges were hurled at Amnesty International, the Washington Office on Latin America and other groups when they drew attention to human rights violations in Central America.
Frictions between the human rights community and the Reagan administration came to full boil when Human Rights Watch director Aryeh Neier and Elliott Abrams of the State Department squared off on Nightline (2/13/85) to discuss U.S. immigration policy. Neier blasted the Salvadoran government and condemned the Reagan administration for acting as a systematic apologist for its abuses. His criticism of aid to the Salvadoran security forces was based on rigorously documented evidence which showed that U.S. policy was in violation of domestic and international law.
Neier’s prodigious staff are consummate professionals, and they have earned the respect of many journalists despite slurs by Kirkpatrick, Abrams and others. But human rights organizations were at a distinct disadvantage in their feud with the U.S. government. Despite their best efforts, Washington continued to set the news agenda on human rights in Central America. New York Times correspondent James LeMoyne, who covered El Salvador and the contras during the mid-1980s, admitted as much when he told a Hunter College audience in New York City last November that human rights reporting was “policy-driven.”
In this respect, reporting on human rights is similar to foreign policy coverage in general. But “policy-driven” took on a special meaning during the Reagan years. Drawing upon the expertise of US Army psychological warfare specialists, the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy launched an aggressive propaganda campaign designed to focus scrutiny on Nicaragua while deflecting attention from far worse abuses in neighboring countries (see Kornbluh, page 20). Although the State Department couldn’t refute the specific findings of organizations like Americas Watch, Witness for Peace and the Washington Office on Latin America, the public diplomacy offensive was nonetheless successful in shifting the focus of media discussion.
Case in point: ABC‘s Nightline ran 27 programs on Central America between January 1985 and April 1988. A FAIR study by sociologists William Hoynes and David Croteau disclosed that 22 of these programs dealt principally with problems or conflict in Nicaragua; not one focused on Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala (Extra!, 1-2/89). FAIR’s study prompted Ted Koppel to concede that Nightline had been covering Central America too narrowly, with not “as many programs as we ought to on state terrorism,” like that practiced by Salvadoran death squads (Los Angeles Times, 2/6/89).
A similar slant was evident in New York Times coverage during the 90-day period following the signing of the Central American peace plan on August 7, 1987. FAIR tallied the column inches of 215 articles in the Times and found a clear pattern. There Times devoted 3.6 times more column inches to Nicaragua than to three of its neighbors combined. The ration of Nicaragua coverage to that of El Salvador was 5 to 1; Honduras 22 to 1; and Guatemala 26 to 1. This was a period of assassination and human rights reversals in El Salvador, rejection of the peace accord in Honduras and intensified warfare in Guatemala. Consider the coverage in a single week: the brief detetentions of oppositionists in Nicaragua were reported far more prominently in the Times (1-16 through 1-20-88) than the murder of human rights monitors in Honduras.
“Journalists often take their lead from the way government officials frame issues,” said Rev. William Wipfler, formerly the human rights director for the National Council of Churches and now with the Episcopal Church Center in New York. “By emphasizing Nicaragua, the media conveyed a misleading impression about human rights problems in the region.”
The Presidential Factor
Editors don’t make any bones about “the presidential factor.” “We’ve got to cover what the president says and does,” is the common refrain. But what happens when all the president’s men “intentionally mislead,” as Elliott Abrams confessed without remorse, in an effort to sell their policies to the American public? What happens when a president doesn’t back up his human rights rhetoric with deeds, as was often the case with Jimmy Carter as well as Reagan? Then “the presidential factor” is a recipe for distortion. There’s nothing necessarily conspiratorial about that, but it adds to the sense in which human rights reporting is policy-driven.
Thus, when Carter took office and started to talk about making human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, the issue received a dramatic boost in media attention—even though a coherent human rights policy never emerged during his administration. The Los Angeles Times index shows a sharp increase in the number of articles listed under “human rights,” with 16 references in 1976 compared to 230 in 1977, Carter’s first year in office. From then on it was downhill, as Reagan posted a much lower human rights average than Carter. Data from CBS Evening News shows a similar trend: 6 segments indexed under “human rights” in 1976 compared to 93 segments in 1977, and it drops off from there.
Right from the start, Reagan showed his disregard for human rights by nominating Ernest W. Lefever to be his first Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. A Congressional inquiry disclosed that Lefever ran an institute that received money from the South African government to circulate view favorable to the apartheid state.
So Elliott Abrams got the job instead, and human rights became a potent weapon in a full-fledged ideological war. The Reagan administration loudly decried abuses in the USSR and other “enemy” states, while pursuing a quiet policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa, Guatemala, China and other “friendly” authoritarian regimes whose lapses were often overlooked.
This cold war bias was reflected in media coverage of human rights, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky have shown in Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon). The authors compare repression in Poland and Guatemala, and note a significant disparity in press attention. Example: For months the US media doggedly followed the case of Jerzy Popieluszko, the activist priest killed in 1984 by Poland’s security forces. Yet in the early 1980s more than a dozen priests were assassinated by government-sponsored death squads in Guatemala and this was virtually ignored by the major media. Americas Watch called Guatemala “a nation of prisoners,” but it never got admitted into the pantheon of “captive nations” by the papers of record, which reserved such appellations for Poland and Hungary. Moreover, human rights abuses in Eastern Europe were regularly traced back to Soviet occupation, while US media rarely explained Guatemalan state terror as a product of continuous US intervention since 1954, when a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew a democratically elected government.
A recent exception was the two-part series on PBS‘s Kwitny Report (WNYC-TV, 2/15/89 & 2/22/89), which examined the U.S. role in Guatemalan human rights abuses. Kwitny provided historical context as he interviewed Americas Watch and exiled Guatemalan opposition leaders, as well as U.S. officials, in a hard-hitting expose that linked U.S. business interests to death squad activity. Fred Sherwood, former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala, was heard telling journalist Allan Nairn: “Why should we do anything about the death squads? They’re killing commies. I’d give them more power! I’d give them cartridges if I could…”
Guatemala has one of the worst human rights records in the Western hemisphere, yet it receives far less media attention than Nicaragua or, for that matter, El Salvador, where the Reagan administration announced early on its intention to draw the line against communism. This underscores another key point about the way in which human rights reporting is policy-driven. As Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, explained: “Countries that loom large in East/West regional conflicts get a lot more press than countries that aren’t perceived in the same geopolitical terms.” El Salvador and Nicaragua loomed during the Reagan administration, while Guatemala faded into hellish obscurity.
Democracy and Human Rights
El Salvador presented U.S. strategists with their toughest job in years. Somehow they had to put a democratic smile on a government drenched in blood from carrying out a U.S.-financed massacre. This was achieved through a highly effective public relations campaign, whereby human rights became equated with elections, as if the latter automatically changed things for the better. Few U.S. journalists featured the protests of Maria Julia Hernandez, a leading rights monitor in El Salvador, the week before Salvador’s March 1984 elections: “These elections have been imposed by the U.S. State Department to legitimize the government so it can get more U.S. military aid. All this will mean is more deaths, more violations of human rights.”
U.S. officials invariably called elections in friendly countries “a step toward democracy,” even when fraud was blatant, as in the 1984 Panamanian election of Nicolas Ardito Barletta and last year’s presidential election in Mexico. And mass media have played along, undaunted by the obvious fact that elections don’t guarantee civilian control over the military. The mere promise of elections and return to civilian rule was enough to justify renewed military aid to Haiti in 1986 and 1987, despite horrific human rights violations by successive military juntas.
Some of the world’s worst human rights abuses are committed in the killing fields of Haiti, Cambodia, the Philippines, El Salvador and Guatemala. Yet these countries are all sanctified as “burgeoning democracies” by the U.S. media. In a recent Newsweek essay, “Welcome to Democracy” (5/29/89), Washington Post op-ed editor Meg Greenfield rhapsodized over “the worldwide democratic surge,” going so far as to describe El Salvador as a “democracy, or at least a pretty good approximation of it.”
At this point reporting on human rights becomes unintentionally Kafkaesque. Basic questions are avoided such as what does democracy mean in countries where death squads routinely carve up people (including human rights monitors) and no military officer is ever punished for a human rights offense. “Elections are certainly a crucial step toward democracy,” said Ken Roth, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, “but you can’t talk about authentic democracy unless there is also the rule of law. This apparently hasn’t sunk in with much of the press.”
Although Congress requires the State Department to certify human rights performance before releasing security and economic assistance, this legislative ritual is often little more than a pro-forma exercise. Improvements always seem to be found at money-crunch time, and the U.S. government continues to directly foster the commission of grave abuses abroad–all in the name of “democracy.” But it’s seemingly taboo for the press to question whether promoting democracy and human rights is the true objective of U.S. foreign policy. While some reporters and editors may challenge this or that tactic (mining Nicaraguan harbors, covertly funding political candidates in El Salvador, etc.), the premise of democratic intentions is rarely examined.
“There is kind of an unconscious constraint among journalists that’s related to the official American definition of the situation,” says Cynthia Brown, associate director of Americas Watch. “Some influential reporters and editors have not made the distinction between elections and democracy. Instead they adopted the Reagan administration’s jargon, which has become the general parlance. It’s dangerous because the subtext is that we don’t have to worry about Latin America any more. They are electing civilian governments and therefore everything must be fine.”
Many Latin American observers take Washington’s proclamations about democracy and human rights with a grain of salt. As Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, told Extra!, “Elections don’t by themselves guarantee the resolution of the problems we inherited from the U.S.-backed military dictatorships of the 1970s.” According to Perez Esquivel, who headed for over a decade the Peace and Justice Service in Latin America, a leading human rights organization on the continent: “True democracy must assure not just political liberties, but also social justice and participation of the poor. No reform will succeed in consolidating the democratic process unless it involves the participation of the workers and the unemployed, the landless, the Indians, the malnourished, the uneducated, the homeless. Only when people are organized in a range of spontaneous and free forms will they be capable of defending their rights.”
Foreign correspondents operate under various constraints, not all of which are explicitly geopolitical in nature. The practical aspects of newsgathering can be a significant factor, especially when a reporter has a lot of territory to cover. As skillful as journalists like Alan Riding and James Brooke of the New York Times may be, they can do only so much when they are expected to cover much of Africa or most of South America. Oftentimes when reporters file human rights stories they have to struggle with their editors to get them published.
Overseas news bureaus tend to be concentrated in countries deemed most important to the U.S. This may result in more comprehensive coverage of human rights abuses in the area where a correspondent is based. It also could have the opposite impact, if journalists tone down their reporting for fear of losing access to official sources. They may not want to foul their own nests,” said Aryeh Neier. Moreover, it’s not easy to get information in certain countries, and government officials may not be cooperative. Journalists who antagonize their hosts run the risk of expulsion, or worse. Sixty-four journalists have been killed or “disappeared” since January 1987, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The entire Australian press corps was banned from Indonesia, a nation where political and civil rights have been systematically suppressed during President Suharto’s 24-year dictatorial rule. Although Indonesia is the world’s fifth most populous country, it receives scant attention in the US media—partly because of tight restrictions on journalists, but also because Indonesia is not a focal point of East/West conflict. Press coverage was minimal even when the US-backed Indonesian army massacred an estimated half-million people in 1965. And the blackout continued when Indonesia—armed by the US—invaded East Timor and killed another 100,000 in the 1970s. Despite a continuing record of torture, disappearances, summary executions and thousands of political incarcerations, Suharto got a free ride in the press when he visited Washington last June to discuss economic matters. “Talk about a teflon president—Indonesia is a teflon country,” says Asia Watch director Sydney Jones.
While a lack of access can be an inhibiting factor, the quality of reporting on human rights, like foreign coverage in general, depends largely on the initiative of individual journalists. Some reporters aggressively pursue human rights stories with exceptional results. This was the case with New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, who dared to visit the dumping grounds near San Salvador where government-sponsored death squads left their mutilated victims in the early 1980s, just when the White House was proclaiming that country a “fledgling democracy.” But Bonner ran into certain institutional constraints—in particular editors like A.M. Rosenthal, who respond to pressure from Washington—and after several months of aggressive reporting he was yanked out of El Salvador.
“Oftentimes there are significant discrepancies between stories filed by beat reporters and editorials in the same newspaper,” notes Paula Newberg, a consultant to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. This was the case when a New York Times editorial, “Not So Regressive in Korea” (3/25/89), praised President Roh Tae Woo, after he postponed a plebiscite promised during his election campaign. “Friends of South Korean democracy shouldn’t be alarmed,” said the Times. “In his first year in office, President Roh has already laid to rest doubts about his democratic convictions.. ..He has let workers struggle for long-denied union rights and kept the powerful security forces leashed.” A few days later the Times ran a brief Reuters dispatch (3/31/89) that stated: “More than 10,000 riot police, firing tear gas and in full battle gear, stormed [South Korea’s] biggest shipyard early today and arrested workers….Strikers fought back with stones, gasoline bombs and clubs. About 700 people were arrested and 20 wounded…” So much for keeping the security forces “leashed” and letting workers “struggle for long-denied union rights.”
Another example of discontinuity between editorials and news stories can be found in the Washington Post‘s coverage of human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Correspondent Glenn Frankel has often brought abuses to the fore, quoting human rights groups, Palestinian detainees and US State Department sources in his articles. Meanwhile the Post‘s editorial page (2/8/89) offered palliatives with this ideological two-step: “What counts most is the nature of the system…That Israel is at heart a democratic country remains its core strength”.
John Healey, executive director of Amnesty International USA, responded to these remarks in a letter to the Post (2/17/89). “Visualize the arm of a teenager held out by soldiers and broken at midshaft,” said Healey, “a rock-thrower lying dead with a bullet in his back or an infant in her cradle asphyxiated by tear gas. Next, record the name and age of each person who has been abused—and chronicle dozens of deaths as a result of plastic bullets and many thousands of wounded people. Finally, count the thousands imprisoned without trial and the scores tortured. Now, turn to an editorial by the Post and read, ‘What counts most, however, is the nature of the system.'”
Under the Volcano
Coverage of human rights violations in the Occupied Territories has become repetitive, almost numbing, as every week a few more Palestinian youths die, their bodies embalmed in cold statistics and buried in two-paragraph graves. Ongoing repression quickly becomes old news, and old news doesn’t make good copy. How many times can a journalist file a story about another human rights monitor murdered in the Philippines? Or another boatload of refugees forced to return to Haiti?
Human rights violations in many countries are ignored until the situation erupts in a major crisis. This was the case in the Occupied Territories, where serious abuses had long been neglected by US journalists prior to the intifada. Likewise, the press did little to inform us about the anger and discontent seething in places like Nigeria, Egypt and Venezuela until food riots broke out in recent months. Numerous other examples fit the same pattern.
The news value of a particular country is enhanced if a local lobby in the US draws attention to what is happening back home. Thus, Cuba will get more coverage in the Miami Herald than in most newspapers. Many US citizens have roots in Eastern Europe, and these historical ties undoubtedly contribute to public concern about human rights abuses in countries like Poland and Czechoslavakia. It also helps to have a hero such as Andrei Sakharov or Lech Walesa for a news peg.
To much of the mass media, the plight of another hero, Nelson Mandela, embodies the struggle for human rights in South Africa. But where are the heros in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa? U.S. press coverage of Africa is minimal, even though terrible human rights violations are rampant across the continent. An Amnesty International survey conducted by Anne Geyer showed that Africa is the most consistently under-reported region in the world. Only two news stories on Africa indexed under “human rights” and “political prisoners” ran in Time magazine between 1980 and 1986; CBS Evening News aired three stories on the subject during the same period. (Soviet human rights problems received the most coverage, according to Amnesty’s survey.)
It barely entered public consciousness in the US when 400,000 Somalis fled their war-torn East African country last summer. Initially backed by Moscow in its conflict with Ethiopia, Somalia’s principal military supplier is now the US. It has committed many atrocities against unarmed civilians. (Ironically, Libya also supplies weapons to Somalia.) Similarly, the massacre in Burundi last year came and went with hardly any follow-up in the press. Such incidents in obscure places are ignored in large part because they have only minor impact on US economic interests or East/West relations. Racial bias is also a factor. As one media professional told Amnesty International: “Perhaps small, dark people being tortured is not considered as relevant as big, white people being tortured.”
Journalists quip that you have to add a few zeros to the number of casualties in Africa before it is deemed newsworthy. One could say the same for parts of Asia and the Middle East. It’s difficult to get information about human rights in many Arab countries partly because of a lack of indigenous human rights monitors. Saudi Arabia, often praised in the U.S. as a “moderate” Arab state, was cited in a Human Rights Watch study as a country where “as far as we know, no one is able to engage in human rights monitoring, or, if anyone does this, no information about the efforts has penetrated the country’s borders.” Torture and floggings of prisoners are common in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International, but such abuses weren’t mentioned in an upbeat series on Saudi modernization by Youssef Ibrahim in the New York Times (4/7/89, 4/26/89 & 4/29/89).
Among the 35 signatory nations of the 1975 Helsinki Accord, Turkey is one of the most egregious human rights violators, yet is a low priority for US media. When the Turkish government figures in human rights stories, they are usually about the brutal mistreatment of the Kurdish ethnic minority (see page 58). Occasional articles discuss the Bulgarian government’s persecution of its Turkish minority. But very little is said about the Turkish government’s ongoing oppression of its own people.
“The coverage of Turkey is terrible,” says Helsinki Watch director Jeri Laber. “It’s amazing how little gets into the press.” Laber has spoken with US journalists who have filed human rights stories from Turkey (the fourth largest recipient of US aid), only to have them killed by editors more interested in travel articles. Ironically, freedom of movement is a right many Turks cannot exercise. Since the military coup in 1980, as many as 300,000 Turkish citizens have been denied passports, and, according to Amnesty International, 250,000 political prisoners were detained and nearly all were tortured; 200 Turks died while in custody because of torture.
Turkey gets far more coverage in Western European countries with large communities of Turkish immigrants and guest workers. Even so, one might think that US news organizations would show more interest when their own employees are brutalized by Turkish authorities. But the US media didn’t publicize the case of Ismet Imset, a UPI reporter who was beaten and imprisoned on trumped-up charges in 1984. (Imset was fired by UPI after he criticized how it responded to the incident.)Nor have US media shown much concern for the 2000 reporters and editors who’ve been tried in Turkish courts since a civilian government was installed in 1983, or the 41 journalists currently in jail.
Labor unions have also been a prime target of Turkish government repression. Martial law in Turkey in the early 1980s put an end to collective bargaining, and the trade union movement was decimated by mass arrests, torture and executions. This occurred at a time when the fledgling Solidarity movement in Poland was receiving a great deal of U.S. press attention. Driven more by U.S. policy interests than by a concern for human rights, many in the mass media averted their eyes from the nightmare in Turkey, and thereby helped to perpetuate it.
“The Cold War is Over…Long Live the Cold War!”
Throughout the Reagan administration, human rights groups keep producing reports and publicizing their findings, even when they cut against the grain of U.S. foreign policy. The work of Amnesty International, the Watch Committees and other monitors was often an irritant to governments around the world, including the U.S. This constant prodding was partly responsible for a reassessment of strategic thinking on human rights by US officials.
Perhaps more importantly, events often outpaced U.S. foreign policy, forcing the U.S. government, in last-minute policy shifts, to engineer the departures of Jean Claude Duvalier from Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines. Prompted by the realization that governments which systematically abuse human rights aren’t always the most dependable surrogates, the State Department even started to criticize General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, who came to power in a U.S.- supported coup.
Reagan’s human rights “conversion,” as the New York Times (12/10/88) would later describe it, was mostly a matter of expediency, as US strategists scrambled to keep up with momentous changes around the globe, particularly in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Concurrent with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the emergence of thousands of grassroots organizations, Soviet television showed photos of skeletons dug up from mass graves in an effort to exorcise long-suppressed demons from the Stalin era. This national soul-searching had significant implications for human rights throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. But as new reforms were being implemented in the USSR, old myths were kept alive by the U.S. media.
Earlier this year, 35 nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, issued a groundbreaking East/West pact on human rights. The Vienna agreement, according to New York Times correspondent Robert Pear, “provides new legal standards by which to judge the conduct of Soviet-bloc countries” (1/17/89). Presumably the conduct of the U.S. and Western European nations will also be judged by these new legal standards, but Pear didn’t say so. He was too caught up in outmoded constructs such as the “Soviet-bloc.”
By now it should be apparent that the topography of human rights in Eastern Europe is far too complex and variegated to fit neatly into a single “bloc.” Yet the image still resounds throughout U.S. news coverage. Romania, once Washington’s favorite communist country in Eastern Europe, is now a pariah state denounced by its socialist neighbors. “A disaster…the worst in Eastern Europe,” is how Helsinki Watch summed up human rights in Romania. Yet for years it got off easy in the US press, which appeared smitten by Romania’s maverick foreign policy of maintaining relations with China and Israel.
Of Poland, Helsinki Watch now says: “No serious problems”—a remarkable development in a country scarred by a history of human rights defeats. All eyes were on Poland in July, when President Bush pulled into Warsaw for some ostpoliticking. U.S. media often seem ready to put the best face on Bush’s lackluster outings. This time, however, they had to go the extra distance for a positive spin.
Bush got a distinctly cool reception in Poland, a country deeply in hock to U.S. and Western banks. How this debt may have contributed to Poland’s economic woes was never discussed, just as journalists did not examine what role foreign (including U.S.) capital played in exacerbating conditions that led to the recent uprising in China. Manifesting a selective concern for workers’ rights, New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield worried that the formation of independent trade unions in China on the Solidarity model might doom economic modernization in that country (ABC Nightline, 5/25/89).
The tumultuous events in China and Solidarity’s electoral triumph in Poland ended up being more grist for the media’s anti-communist mill. The Reds are going down for the count, we were told. The cold war is over, and the U.S. has won! But amidst all the brouhaha about the collapse of communism, an ironic twist went unnoticed by most media. For years journalists had depicted communist societies as hopelessly totalitarian, completely immune to reform. Yet in almost every communist country people are asserting themselves in ways that shame our own passivity and refute the eternal Red Devil myth that Americans were raised on.
Pronouncements about winning the cold war are a sure sign the media haven’t given up the fight. This was evident when Dan Rather and Leslie Stahl did a stand-up on CBS Evening News (7-12-89) as Bush arrived in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Rather noted that Bush had refrained from criticizing Gorbachev on his own turf. “Does this mean George Bush is going to give Gorbachev a free-fire zone and never answer back?” he asked Stahl. They bantered about the “competition” between Bush and Gorbachev, musing over who had the upper hand in the PR battle. Disarmament was now part of the “competition,” according to Stahl, as the superpower chiefs played a game of weapons reduction one-upsmanship. Bush would “stay on the offensive,” she stated, by making some new proposals when he goes to Paris to meet with Western leaders.
ABC correspondent Brit Hume summed up the official consensus when he said, “These are good times in the Free World,” in contrast to life behind the “Iron Curtain” (World News Tonight, 7/13/89). The use of such jargon (the “Free World” presumably includes such anti-communist allies as Turkey, South Africa and Guatemala) was a reminder that the media’s human rights spotlight is still aimed exclusively at targets abroad, not at the U.S.
Issues such as homelessness, poverty, Native American land struggles, Sanctuary for Central American refugees and FBI harassment of domestic dissidents are not framed in terms of human rights by the U.S. press. For all the ink spilled on the HUD scandal, few journalists have drawn the connection to the homeless. And those who report on poverty in the U.S. rarely probe its relevance to democracy and human rights.
In this special publication of Extra!, we look at U.S. media coverage of human rights problems both at home and in other countries. The articles are grouped in six categories, with the first two focusing on Latin America. The third section begins with a critique of U.S. press coverage of the Holocaust, the darkest hour for human rights, and ends where events are currently so hopeful, in the Soviet Union. The fourth part scrutinizes coverage of human rights violations in the U.S. The fifth deals with racism and press freedom, and the final section explores in greater depth the economic underpinning of human rights, particularly in the Third World.
Our hope is to provide a tool that will enable people to assess media coverage of human rights more critically.