Human Rights Abroad

excerpted from the book

Through the Media Looking Glass

Decoding Bias and Blather in the News

by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Common Courage Press, 1995, paper

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. government?

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 these issues.

Don't blame yourself if you've never seen Rights ~ Wrongs. Blame PBS, which has refused to fund or distribute the program.

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 Year."


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 President Nixon.

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 come."

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 election."

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 officers.

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.


"Washington has a long and troubled history with Port-au-Prince," Newsweek reported in its Oct. 25 [1993] 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.


President Aristide was scheduled to return to Haiti on Oct. 30 [1993]-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 government.

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.


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 mentally ill.

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.


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 Aristide.

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 Watch.

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.


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 forthright history.


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 [1994] 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 quite different.

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 slaughtered.

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 [1994], 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 [1994] 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.

Through the Media Looking Glass

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