Jan 1 1988

Questionnaire for the New York Times on Its Central America Coverage

On Jan. 23, 1988, FAIR sent a questionnaire — excerpted below — to senior New York Times editors and correspondents covering Central America. It challenged Times coverage following the signing of the Esquipulas (“Arias”) regional peace accord, which required all Central American countries to respect human and political rights, and called for an end to all outside support for rebel movements.

In a written response, a Times editor referred to the questionnaire as an “indictment” — but promised that “my colleagues and I will study your questionnaire and put it in the hands of our correspondents.”


The Reagan administration’s PR strategy in support of the Nicaraguan contra rebels has been based on singling out Nicaragua as anti-democratic while sanctifying El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as “fledgling democracies.” With some exceptions, New York Times coverage has echoed the administration’s “Nicaragua obsession” — emphasizing repressive measures in Nicaragua and downplaying or ignoring more serious human rights abuses elsewhere in Central America. We submit this questionnaire in hopes of encouraging the Times to apply a consistent standard of newsworthiness to its coverage.

FAIR analyzed Central America coverage during the 90-day period that followed the signing of the regional peace accord on Aug. 7, 1987 (215 articles). During a period that saw human rights reversals in El Salvador, clear refusal to comply with the accord in Honduras and stepped-up fighting in Guatemala, the Times devoted 3.6 times more column inches to Nicaragua (almost all of it negative coverage) than to the other three countries combined. The ratio of Nicaragua coverage to that of El Salvador was five to one; of Honduras, 22 to one; of Guatemala, 26 to one. This focus on Nicaragua — relative to other countries — appears to have intensified since November 1987.

Q: How does the Times explain the disparity in coverage?

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A ratio of five to one (even 26 to one) in coverage would be justifiable if Nicaragua were the leading human rights abuser in Central America. But the findings of human rights groups such as Americas Watch and Amnesty International reveal quite the contrary. Year after year in the 1980s, both human rights groups found that torture and extrajudicial killings were “systematically practiced” in El Salvador and Guatemala, but not in Nicaragua.

Q: On what human rights sources does the New York Times rely for its editorial policy regarding which countries to scrutinize for abuses?

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New York Times reporting is often skewed about what does or does not violate the regional accord — e.g., Steven Kinzer’s claim (10/4/87) that “Nicaragua must permit full press and political freedom” while “other Central American countries must stop aiding” the contras.

Q: Why does the Times fail to cite well-documented acts of repression in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as violations of the accord?

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Numerous abuses in El Salvador have been reported by labor and human rights groups since the signing of the regional accord. Among them: the Sept. 1 disappearance of labor leader Salvador Ubau; the Sept. 9 arrest and torture of two high school students for distributing illegal literature; the Dec. 18 assassination of labor activist Medadro Ayala; the killing of two political detainees while in police custody, including one “beaten almost until death and thrown from the prison roof,” according to a Salvadoran human rights group report.

Q: Why are such events not scrutinized by the Times?

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The disruption by civilian supporters of the Sandinistas of a “Mothers of Political Prisoners” gathering in Nicaragua received prominent coverage and a photo (1/23/88).

Q: Why was the disruption by Salvadoran riot police of a “Mothers of Political Prisoners and the Disappeared” march in El Salvador on Dec. 21, 1987 ignored?

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The Nicaraguan government now permits daily publication of a right-wing newspaper (La Prensa) that is sympathetic to the armed opposition seeking to overthrow the government.

Q: Why has the Times failed to emphasize that no dailies can exist in El Salvador or Guatemala that are even remotely linked to the political left?

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When a leader of the Honduran human rights group CODEH and a colleague were assassinated, a non-headlined New York Times story on the killings (1/16/88) totaled five paragraphs and 160 words. The day after the killings, the arrest of five right-wing oppositionists in Nicaragua — all released within two days — resulted in 19 paragraphs and a headline across the top of page 10 (1/17/88). Three days later, the detention of five other Nicaraguan opposition figures for seven hours prompted a front-page above-the-fold article (1/20/88).

Q: In the Times‘ day-to-day coverage, why are detentions in Nicaragua treated as more significant than recurrent death squad killings in Honduras?

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On Jan. 20, 1988, James LeMoyne’s “news analysis” stated that “Honduran officials, backed by the Reagan administration, appear to be cynically calculating that Honduran non-compliance [with the peace accord] will be overlooked as attention focuses on Nicaragua.”

Q: Hasn’t the Timesitself focused attention on Nicaragua in a way that effectively supports White House strategies?