Human Rights Abroad
excerpted from the book
Through the Media Looking
Decoding Bias and Blather
in the News
by Jeff Cohen and Norman
Common Courage Press, 1995,
Human Rights Abroad
Human Rights and Media Wrongs
July 7, 1993
Last month in Vienna, the United Nations
brought together representatives from 170 countries for a World
Conference on Human Rights.
The [June 1993] conference discussed some
subjects, like Bosnia, that are front-page news here, and other
issues that Americans hear far less about-such as atrocities in
Angola committed by Jonas Savimbi's guerrillas, formerly armed
by the U.S. government.
Selective news coverage of global human
rights abuses has a long journalistic history in the United States.
It's a practice that has deadly effects.
When a U.S.-backed government violating
human rights receives tough, persistent coverage in American news
outlets, it can change Washington's policy toward that government.
Lives can be saved.
But many regimes are able to engage in
torture, murder and mass jailings with almost no U.S. media coverage.
Over the years, various studies have analyzed
why certain tyrants get front-page attention, but others can commit
abuses in relative privacy. A big factor is that U.S. media outlets
usually don't set their own foreign news agenda; they let the
White House lead. And American administrations are anything but
"objective"-their P.R. goal is to highlight brutal enemies,
while turning the spotlight away from brutal friends.
Take the case of Saddam Hussein. Prior
to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when Hussein was a U.S. ally,
the dictator's crimes were well-documented-but hardly mentioned
in American media. In 1985, for example, Amnesty International
issued a report detailing Iraq's torture of hundreds of children
to extract information about their relatives. It met with a giant
yawn in the U.S. media.
Certainly the White House-busy offering
Iraq credits, intelligence support and arms in the mid-1980s-had
no interest in shining a light on Hussein's abuses then.
But after the Kuwait invasion, journalists
outdid even President Bush in depicting Hussein as a "beast"
and a "monster." When Hussein posed for pictures with
a young British hostage, the New York Post front page carried
the huge headline: "CHILD ABUSER."
Years earlier, when Washington's support
was helping Hussein torture Iraqi children and adults, such journalistic
outrage could have made a difference.
Or take the case of China's Deng Xiaoping.
U.S. media coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising and crackdown
in 1989 was infused with righteous indignation. But what about
media coverage in the mid-1980s-when thousands of students and
dissidents were being tortured, while millions of Chinese languished
in labor camps and prisons? This was a period when President Reagan
approved sales of police equipment to Deng's internal security
forces, and expanded military ties with China.
Much of the coverage hailed the "enlightened"
Deng as a "liberalizer" and "reformer" who
supported "free enterprise." Time magazine cheered Deng
Xiaoping, selecting him "Man of the Year" for 1985.
After the Tiananmen crackdown, New York
Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal complained that "American
administrations yawned at reports of repression of basic freedoms
in China.... So, much too often, did American journalism."
Rosenthal was an odd one to complain,
since he'd been the executive editor of the New York Times during
the mid-1980s when its coverage of repression in China virtually
ceased. From 1984 through 1986, Newsweek featured only one report
on the subject; Time published none.
Given these historical examples, news
consumers have reason to wonder what major human rights dramas
may be unfolding today outside the frame of most mainstream media.
Is it the struggle to end the nearly three-decade-long
Mobutu dictatorship in Zaire, a regime long supported by the U.S.
Is it the effort to win an accounting
of 1,600 Greek Cypriots missing since Northern Cyprus was occupied
by Turkey, another U.S. ally?
Or perhaps it's the challenge to a brutal
military in Guatemala which has effectively held power since a
U.S.-backed invasion and coup in 1954?
If you're a viewer of Rights ~ Wrongs-the
national TV show devoted to global human rights-you know about
Don't blame yourself if you've never seen
Rights ~ Wrongs. Blame PBS, which has refused to fund or distribute
PBS seems wary of a weekly series willing
to point out Washington's complicity in human rights abuses. The
program's producers-Globalvision in New York-have had to self-distribute
the show to individual public TV stations. At many stations, it
airs at off hours.
If PBS executives find the backbone to
support the show, which is hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the
program's survival will be assured.
In that case, you'll be able to tune in
to Rights ~ Wrongs for the full story the next time the White
House sends aid to a tyrant who tortures kids, or when Time magazine
salutes a leading human rights abuser as its "Man of the
20 Years After Chile Coup-Media Coverage Still Evasive
September 8, 1993
Twenty years ago the bloody hands of dictatorship
strangled democracy in Chile.
On Sept. 11, 1973, a military junta struck-bombing
the presidential palace in Santiago, rounding up political activists,
and seizing the media. When the smoke cleared, the country's elected
president, Salvador Allende, was dead.
Thousands were executed, tens of thousands
jailed. Chile became a land of torture and repression under General
Augusto Pinochet. But U.S. news media shed little light on what
caused the coup, and what happened in its wake.
Many reporters took their cues from the
Nixon White House, which had special venom for Allende-a Marxist
elected to a six-year term as Chile's president.
Back in 1964, the U.S. had poured $20
million into Chile to help defeat Allende's first campaign for
the presidency. When Allende won the popular vote in 1970, top
U.S. officials were furious.
They tried-unsuccessfully-to prevent Salvador
Allende from taking office. Among the many gambits: The CIA paid
23 journalists from ten countries to rush to Chile and write dire
articles about the consequences if Allende became president; the
reports sparked a huge bank panic in Santiago, leading to the
transfer of large amounts of capital overseas.
Allende's "Popular Unity" campaign
had pledged to fight poverty by providing nutrition, health care,
education and employment to millions of impoverished Chileans.
During the early 1970s, Chile's new government set about making
good on its promises.
But corporations with big investments
in Chile were eager to see an end to the socialist government.
ITT pushed U.S. policymakers to move against Allende. So did Pepsico-whose
board chairman and CEO, Donald M. Kendall, was close friends with
Kendall beseeched Nixon and his foreign
policy chief Henry Kissinger to intensify covert operations. The
White House moved to fulfill a plan approved in a meeting that
involved CIA Director Richard Helms, Nixon and Kissinger: "Make
the [Chilean] economy scream," Helms wrote in his notes.
In a cable sent to Washington when Allende
was about to take office, U.S. Ambassador Edward M. Korrey reported
telling Chilean authorities: "Not a nut or bolt will be allowed
to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall
do all within our power to condemn Chile and Chileans to utmost
deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to
Washington followed through on its threats.
And, as the economic squeeze took its toll, U.S. agencies also
stepped up the media war inside Chile. The CIA funneled money
and a massive flow of anti-Allende propaganda into the Chilean
newspaper El Mercurio, which played a crucial role in fomenting
turmoil and setting the stage for the coup in 1973.
At about 9:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, with bombs
exploding nearby, Salvador Allende spoke from the presidential
palace on a radio station not yet blown off the air: "Having
a historic choice to make, I shall sacrifice my life to be loyal
to my people and I can assure you that I am certain that the seeds
planted by us in the noble consciences of thousands and thousands
of Chileans will never be prevented from growing."
In the United States, congressional inquiries
during the mid-1970s illuminated deep CIA involvement in the overthrow
of Chile's elected government. But, while the torture and repression
continued, media attention on Chile was low in quantity and quality.
In 1984, a typical article in the New
York Times recounted that Allende's policies caused "chaos"
which "brought in the military"-conveniently omitting
mention of the pivotal roles played by the CIA, other U.S. agencies
and corporations eager to protect their holdings inside Chile.
In August 1988 the New York Times front
page ran a photo of a grandfatherly-looking Pinochet-over the
heading "Pinochet to Seek a Third Term." The caption
explained that he was "nominated to run in the Oct. 5 single-candidate
In fact, Gen. Pinochet was holding a plebiscite
designed to perpetuate his reign. He wasn't running for any kind
of third term. He'd never been elected to any office. Nor was
he "nominated" by anyone other than a clique of military
Pinochet lost much of his power in 1989-but
U.S. news coverage has continued the old evasions. "The media
make you believe that living under the junta wasn't that bad,"
observes Chilean exile Claudio Duran, now a Californian.
Although the dictatorship savagely attacked
the poor, you wouldn't know that from U.S. media crowing about
Chile's economic "boom" over the last decade.
The economy has been "anything but
miraculous" for Chile's working people, writes Cornell University
scholar Cathy Schneider in the magazine Report on the Americas.
Forty-two percent of Chileans were living in poverty by the end
of the 1980s. "Poverty and income inequality which grew by
colossal proportions during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship
have scarcely been addressed by the new democratic regime."
Today, Schneider writes, "the Chilean
government provides funds only to those popular organizations
willing to convert into small businesses. Many soup kitchens,
for example, have become private bakeries, groceries or restaurants
with government support. The entrepreneur is encouraged, the political
organizer is repressed."
Seeing the world through the eyes of the
wealthy, the New York Times recently reported: "Economists
and bankers generally agree" that Chile ranks second among
"the most attractive Latin American countries for investment."
The article lauded Chile as Latin America's "fastest-growing
and perhaps most open economy."
The newspaper added: "Chile is a
good example of heightened investment by consumer-product and
technology companies. Pepsico late last year announced a $100
million investment program, buying the country's largest bottler
and snack-food concerns, and opening KFC's and Pizza Huts in Santiago."
There's another side-a bloody one-to the
Pepsico story in Chile. But you probably won't find it anywhere
in news media coverage of Chile. Maybe the place you're least
likely to hear about Pepsico's role in the murder of Chilean democracy
is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, sponsored by Pepsico to the tune
of several million dollars every year.
Haiti News Coverage Leaves Out Vital History
October 27, 1993
These days [autumn 1993] Americans are
seeing a lot of news coverage about Haiti. But instead of candid
history, we've been getting journalistic myths. Plenty of them.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT AS INNOCENT DO-GOODER
"Washington has a long and troubled
history with Port-au-Prince," Newsweek reported in its Oct.
25  issue. The magazine recalled the 19-year occupation
of Haiti by U.S. Marines that ended in 1934-but, like other news
outlets, skimmed over more recent history.
While informing readers that Francois
("Papa Doc") Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ("Baby
Doc") went on to "tyrannize Haiti for 30 years,"
Newsweek didn't get around to mentioning the U.S. government's
support for their bloodthirsty dictatorship.
Nor did Newsweek mention that the Reagan
administration was hailing the dictatorship as late as 1985-when
a Washington Post headline read: "U.S. Praises Duvalier for
Democratic Commitment." Actually, the Duvaliers showed commitment
to U.S. business interests, not democracy.
During the Duvalier family reign, an estimated
30,000 people were killed-with many more tortured or terrorized.
After Baby Doc was driven into exile in
1986, the U.S. still tried to have its way inside Haiti. In the
country's first free presidential elections, in December 1990,
the Bush White House threw its support behind a rich ex-official
of the World Bank. The U.S.-backed candidate received 13 percent
of the vote; activist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide won in a landslide
with 67 percent.
THE OBSTINATE ARISTIDE
President Aristide was scheduled to return
to Haiti on Oct. 30 -under an agreement shaped by the U.S.
and the United Nations. The Clinton administration spent months
pressuring Aristide to make dangerous concessions to the military
thugs who organized the September 1991 coup against his elected
Last June, near the end of negotiations
for what became "the Governors Island Accord," news
reports depicted Aristide as unduly reluctant to sign the pact-which
allows coup leaders to stay in the army.
ARISTIDE THE NUT
Widely reported in recent weeks by journalists
who've never seen the document, a CIA "psychological profile"
(prepared during the Bush administration) portrays Aristide as
Clinton aides-and others who've seen President
Aristide up close in office and in exile-dismiss the classified
CIA dossier as a caricature written by analysts who despise the
Haitian's leftist politics.
Yet the CIA profile is taken as gospel
by some journalists. CBS-TV correspondent David Martin began his
Oct. 13 report this way: "U.S. officials familiar with the
psychological profile prepared by the CIA say Jean-Bertrand Aristide
suffers emotional problems which require psychiatric treatment..."
The NAACP leadership has denounced such
reports as "disinformation." Congressman Joe Kennedy
complains about CIA rumor-mongering aimed at discrediting Aristide.
ARISTIDE THE HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSER
CBS correspondent Martin glibly reported
that "during nearly eight months as president," Aristide
"paid little mind to democratic principles." In fact,
during his presidency a total of 19 political killings were documented
in Haiti-with no evidence that any were approved or condoned by
In contrast, according to a report by
Americas Watch and other human rights groups, there were at least
76 political killings in Haiti during the 11 months before Aristide
took office. And since Aristide's ouster, several thousand civilians
have been killed by the military and its allies.
Although critics claim Aristide encouraged
lynchings of Duvalier allies, independent monitors say that the
Aristide government brought about a big improvement in Haiti's
human rights situation. "It is ludicrous to compare that
progress with the systematic mass murder committed since by the
army," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights
News reports grossly distort reality when
they suggest that Aristide's approach to human rights is somehow
comparable to the brutality of Haiti's past or present rulers.
ARISTIDE THE "ANTI-AMERICAN"
Another common media theme came from CBS's
David Martin: "Although he is living in the U.S. and counting
on the Clinton administration to return him to power, Aristide
has, at times, been virulently anti-American, once referring to
the common enemy that is called the imperialist American."
As long as the history of U.S. support
for Haitian dictators is kept out of the picture, such portraits
of Aristide can make him seem irrationally hostile. The fact is
that after becoming president, Aristide established good relations
with the United States.
If Aristide is able to return to Haiti
and resume his presidency without being killed, it will be a miracle.
Almost as miraculous would be U.S. news coverage of Haiti containing
Jimmy Carter and Human Rights: Behind the Media Myth
September 21, 1994
Jimmy Carter's reputation has soared lately.
Typical of the media spin was a Sept.
20  report on CBS Evening News, lauding Carter's "remarkable
resurgence" as a freelance diplomat. The network reported
that "nobody doubts his credibility, or his contacts."
For Jimmy Carter, the pact he negotiated
in Haiti-which averted a military confrontation-is the latest
achievement of his long career on the global stage.
During his presidency, Carter proclaimed
human rights to be "the soul of our foreign policy."
Although many journalists promoted that image, the reality was
Inaugurated 13 months after Indonesia's
December 1975 invasion of East Timor, Carter stepped up U.S. military
aid to the Jakarta regime as it continued to murder Timorese civilians.
By the time Carter left office, about 200,000 people had been
Elsewhere, despotic allies-from Ferdinand
Marcos of the Philippines to the Shah of Iran-received support
from President Carter.
In El Salvador, the Carter administration
provided key military aid to a brutal regime. In Nicaragua, contrary
to myth, Carter backed dictator Anastasio Somoza almost until
the end of his reign. In Guatemala-again contrary to enduring
myth- major U.S. military shipments to bloody tyrants never ended.
After moving out of the White House in
early 1981, Carter developed a reputation as an ex-president with
a conscience. He set about building homes for the poor. And when
he traveled to hot spots abroad, news media often depicted Carter
as a skillful negotiator on behalf of human rights.
But a decade after Carter left the Oval
Office, scholar James Petras assessed the ex-president's actions
overseas-and found that Carter's image as "a peace mediator,
impartial electoral observer and promoter of democratic values...clashes
with the experiences of several democratic Third World leaders
struggling against dictatorships and pro-U.S. clients."
From Latin America to East Africa, Petras
wrote, Carter functioned as "a hard-nosed defender of repressive
state apparatuses, a willing consort to electoral frauds, an accomplice
to U.S. Embassy efforts to abort popular democratic outcomes and
a one-sided mediator."
Observing the 1990 election in the Dominican
Republic, Carter ignored fraud that resulted in the paper-thin
victory margin of incumbent president Joaquin Balaguer. Announcing
that Balaguer's bogus win was valid, Carter used his prestige
to give international legitimacy to the stolen election-and set
the stage for a rerun this past spring , when Balaguer again
used fraud to win re-election.
In December 1990, Carter traveled to Haiti,
where he labored to undercut Jean-Bertrand Aristide during the
final days of the presidential race. According to a top Aristide
aide, Carter predicted that Aristide would lose, and urged him
to concede defeat. (He ended up winning 67 percent of the vote.)
Since then, Carter has developed a warm
regard for Haiti's bloodthirsty armed forces. Returning from his
recent mission to Port-au-Prince, Carter actually expressed doubt
that the Haitian military was guilty of human rights violations.
Significantly, Carter's involvement in
the mid-September  negotiations came at the urging of Lt.
Gen. Raoul Cedras-who phoned Carter only days before the expected
U.S. invasion and asked him to play a mediator role. (Cedras had
floated the idea in an Aug. 6 appearance on CNN.)
Carter needed no encouragement. All summer
he had been urging the White House to let him be a mediator in
dealings with Haiti.
Carter's regard for Cedras matches his
evident affection for Cedras' wife. On Sept. 20, back home in
Georgia, Carter told a New York Times interviewer: "Mrs.
Cedras was impressive, powerful and forceful. And attractive.
She was slim and very attractive."
The day after American forces arrived
in Haiti, President Clinton was upbeat, saying that "our
troops are working with full cooperation with the Haitian military"-the
same military he had described five days earlier as "armed
thugs" who have "conducted a reign of terror, executing
children, raping women, killing priests."
The latest developments in Haiti haven't
surprised Petras, an author and sociology professor at Binghamton
University in New York. When Carter intervenes, Petras said when
we reached him on Sept. 20, "the outcomes are always heavily
skewed against political forces that want change. In each case,
he had a political agenda-to support very conservative solutions
that were compatible with elite interests."
Petras described Carter as routinely engaging
in "a double discourse. One discourse is for the public,
which is his moral politics, and the other is the second track
that he operates on, which is a very cynical realpolitik that
plays ball with very right-wing politicians and economic forces."
With much of Haiti's murderous power structure
remaining in place, the results are likely to be grim.
the Media Looking Glass