Sep
24
2009

USA Today, AP Mislead on Honduran Coup

This week, ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned to Tegucigalpa--though not to office. Unfortunately, press accounts are still misreporting the story behind his ouster, relying on those who supported the coup to supply the explanation for their actions.

Some of the most misleading coverage has appeared in the Associated Press dispatches that have run in USA Today. The paper's September 22 edition ran this from the AP:

The legislature ousted Zelaya after he formed an alliance with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and tried to alter the nation's constitution. Zelaya was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court on charges of treason for ignoring court orders against holding a referendum to extend his term. The Honduran Constitution forbids a president from trying to obtain another term in office.

Besides being confusing (is an "alliance" with Hugo Chávez illegal?), this formulation repeats the unsupported case that pro-coup forces in Honduras have made: that President Zelaya was seeking to extend his term in office. While his critics may have accused him of this, there is no reason why AP should treat their charges as fact.

Indeed, the referendum that Zelaya was seeking in late June was a non-binding poll about whether to revise the constitution. Zelaya hoped that a "yes" vote on that referendum would have led to a binding vote on the November ballot--at the same time voters would be choosing Zelaya's successor--about whether to hold a constitutional convention. In other words, there was no plausible way that this process could have resulted in Zelaya extending his time in office. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic & Policy Research (7/8/09) pointed out:

The belief that Zelaya was fighting to extend his term in office has no factual basis--although most people who follow this story in the press seem to believe it. The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date.

On September 23, USA Today ran another AP report (appearing on the "print edition" section of its website) making the same claim: "Zelaya was put on a plane by the military in June for trying to force a referendum to change the constitution's limit of one term for presidents." This is simply not what the referendum called for. In fact, before the coup took place, the Associated Press seemed to know this. On June 26, the wire service noted that "Sunday's referendum has no legal effect: it merely asks people if they want to have a later vote on whether to convoke an assembly to rewrite the constitution."

So when did the AP's understanding of the referendum change, and why? And is USA Today comfortable with publishing such material?

ACTION:

Contact the Associated Press and USA Today and ask them why their reporting on Honduras this week has advanced falsehoods about the removal of President Manuel Zelaya.

CONTACT:

Associated Press

Tom Kent, Standards Editor

tkent@ap.org

USA Today

Brent Jones, Reader Editor

accuracy@usatoday.com