Press coverage of human rights in El Salvador and Nicaragua provides an excellent test of journalistic integrity. This is because the US government has staked clear positions: supporting the Salvadoran regime and playing down its less savory qualities; opposing and denigrating the Nicaraguan government while trying to portray the US-organized contras as “freedom fighters.” The test is strengthened by the fact that human rights abuses by the Nicaraguan government are modest when compared with those of the government of El Salvador or the contras, as has been regularly documented by organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch.
After the Central American peace accord of August 1987, the Reagan administration stepped up covert operations within Nicaragua, aggressively encouraging (and funding) the internal opposition to march, protest in the streets and strike, with the design of provoking responses that would yield further propaganda bonanzas. Ignoring parallels to US covert operations in Chile in the early 1970s, the major media gave prominent coverage to the marches, strikes and crackdown in Nicaragua; the historical context of US intervention was minimized or avoided. While Sandinista abuses were played up in the press, the contras and the Salvadoran government were deemed unworthy of comparable attention.
El Salvador: Distortion and Blackout
An analysis of New York Times coverage of El Salvador in the first six months of 1988 shows a pattern of suppressed information and selective presentation of the facts documented by independent human rights groups. For example, in its Chronology of Human Rights Violations in El Salvador, January-December 1988, the Los Angeles-based El Rescate lists 1,679 violations for the first six months of the year, in terse summaries spread over 132 pages. Of this total, 718 involved civilians by soldiers or “heavily armed men in civilian clothes.” The listing includes 232 assassinations and 24 reported disappearances. Forty-six of the acts were specifically traceable to the FMLN leftist guerrillas (including nine executions). The vast bulk of the other 1,633 violations were carried out by government and affiliated rightwing forces.
Turning to the New York Times‘ coverage for the same six months, one finds eight articles that focus heavily on human rights violations in El Salvador. Six of them, all by James LeMoyne, are on rebel violence (e.g., “Guerrillas in Salvador step up pre-election violence,” 3/20/88; “Salvadoran revels target civilians, killing 3,” 4/20/88). Two of the six articles focused on the alleged rebel-sponsered killing of human rights activist Herbert Anaya.
The two articles on rightwing violence reported on the murders of Supreme Court Judge Dr. Ephrain Antonio Huezo Chavez (1/31/88) and military judge Jorge Alberto Serrano (5/12/88). These two pieces exhausted the Times‘ news coverage of government atrocities in El Salvador in the first half of 1988. In accord with the U.S. government position, the paper of record blacked out that country’s massive ongoing state terror. Although the ratio of Salvadoran state acts of violence to those of the rebels was probably in excess of 10 to 1, the Times gave three times as much attention to alleged rebel violence (6 to 2).
Furthermore, the articles by LeMoyne on the murder of Anaya, suggesting that leftists were to blame, gave credence to a confession by a student who had been tortured by the police, and who recanted as soon as he was released. (LeMoyne’s reporting on the killing of Anaya, a leading critic of the military and death squads, appears to be an example of knowing gullibility and the use of disinformation; see Edward S. Herman, “LeMoyne and the Times on the Murder of Herbert Anaya: Disinformation as News Fit to Print,” Covert Action Information Bulletin, Winter 1989). And the articles about the rightwing murders of the judges were perfunctory and buried on back pages, whereas a recent murder, allegedly by the Salvadoran rebels, got front page treatment in the Times (6-10-89).
During this six-month period an election was held in El Salvador, won by the Arena party. There were numerous articles in the Times on the elections, but while several of them mentioned in passing that there were human rights violations in El Salvador (mainly in the past) and that there were fears of a resurgence of death squad activity, not a single article discussed at length recent levels of political murder, their sources, or their impact on the election. This conforms to the Herman-Brodhead model of “demonstration elections,” which proposes that in US-staged and supported elections, ongoing state terror will be off the US media agenda as an issue bearing on the quality of the election (see Ed Herman and Frank Brodhead’s Demonstration Elections: US-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and El Salvador, South End Press).
Inflating Government Terror In Nicaragua
Although Nicaraguan government violence against protesters, labor, and the general citizenry was much less severe than that taking place in El Salvador in the first half of 1988, and was far less brutal than that of the contras, the New York Times‘ news coverage conveyed the opposite impression.
During this six-month period, the paper did not publish a single article featuring contra violence, although Americas Watch pointed out that, despite the March 1988 cease-fire, there was no detectable change in the tactics of the contras “in regard to the protection of civilians and of enemy personnel found hors de combat”(Human Rights in Nicaragua, August 1987 to August 1988). The Times ran ten articles in the first half of 1988 on Sandinista abuses, including four on the front page — e.g., ,”Leftists Defy Sandinistas as Labor Strife Hits Peak” (4- 14 -88); “Nicaragua Taki ng a TougherStand on the Opposition” (5-16-88).
These news articles, all written by Stephen Kinzer, occasionally mentioned Sandinista claims that the labor strife was fomented by the US, but Kinzer cited no independent evidence on this point, nor did he give it any prominence. He also never mentioned the Chile example or discussed a “Chileanization” strategy and its applicability to Nicaragua (although this was discussed at length in the Guardian, the Central American Information Bulletin and other progressive publications). Kinzer also failed to compare the level and quality of attacks on labor in Nicaragua with those in El Salvador.
Nicaragua’s expulsion of US Ambassador Melton i n July 1988 and Congressman Jim Wright’s subsequent revelation of Melton’s efforts to provoke a violent confrontation between Nicaraguan police and anti-government demonstrators was noted in the Times. For the most part, however, Times news coverage of Nicaragua in 1988 heavily featured Sandinista oppression, stripped of relevant context that would render the interaction between government and protesters meaningful, and inflated far beyond its value in comparison with human rights violations by the contras and Salvadoran government in the same time period.
Americas Watch on Labor Abuses in El Salvador: the Blackout
It is always enlightening to observe how the mass media select and ignore documents in accord with their editorial positions. In March 1988, in the midst of the new Times solicitude for labor rights in Nicaragua, Americas Watch put out a report entitled Labor Rights in El Salvador. This 117-page document provides a rich lode of material on the forms of labor repression in the “fledgling democracy,” including a chronology of anti-labor actions and an accounting of 128 arrests and 13 murders and disappearances of labor activists in the year extending from September 1986 through August 1987.
While the scale of violence against labor leaders and activists had declined since the early 1980s, Americas Watch noted that “recurrent military involvement in detentions of, and attacks against, union and peasant cooperative activists suggests that such measures remain a component of government policy.” Americas Watch pointed out that in addition to the “well- worn methods” of murder and disappearances, the Duarte government had made use of a wide variety of other devices for stifling worker dissent and organization.
These tactics have included, according to Americas Watch, the militarization of workplaces; surveillance of outspoken union leaders; refusal to grant official recognition to associations considered hostile to the government; the fostering of docile, parallel unions to compete for membership and recognition; the barring of vocal union leadership from government workplaces; retaliatory actions against workers critical of government policies; arrests of strike leaders and mass dismissals of strikers; dissemination of propaganda equating worker demands with support for the armed opposition; and shutting down plants where union organization is on the rise.
Although this Americas Watch report includes material highly relevant to public understanding of the nature of the Salvadoran regime, and was put out by a credible source (with a copy conveyed directly to James LeMoyne), the NewYork Times never mentioned the document or made its material available to its readers.
The Washington Post also had no news account of the Americas Watch report. It did get a certain amount of attention in the Washington Post, however, because the report so outraged Jeanne Kirkpatrick that she devoted a column to “The Strange Viewpoint of Americas Watch” (3-14-88). This elicited a letter to the editor from Americas Watch and a sequel of four other letters, two defending the report, two denouncing it. Thus the Americas Watch report was brought to the attention of the Washington Post‘s readers, but only because a rightwing columnist used it as a means of attacking Americas Watch, not because the Post editors deemed it newsworthy.
A year later, Americas Watch published another document on labor abuses in El Salvador, Petition Before the US Trade Representative on Labor Rights in El Salvador (March 1989). This document described case after case of attacks on labor activists by the army and government-linked death squads and their interventions on the side of employers in what appeared to be straightforward labor disputes. The report details how labor unionists were seized, beaten, raped and murdered for picketing, striking, and organizing workers. Again, neither the Times or the Post were interested.
The U.S. government has not wanted such abuses to be closely scrutinized, and the New York Times and Washington Post have largely obliged. But state policy calls for rigorous attention to Nicaraguan abuses, and we have seen the New York Times oblige there also. The media’s selective emphasis helps the U.S. government to continue its sponsorship of terrorism in Central America.
Edward S. Herman’s book The “Terrorism” Industry, coauthored with Gerry O’Sullivan, will be published by Pantheon later this year.