Honduras held elections on November 29, 2009, that were deemed illegitimate by most of the international community and resulted in the presidency of Porfirio Lobo, a conservative politician and agricultural landowner. [I] The election occurred just months after the illegal coup overthrowing President Manuel Zelaya and, as a result of a significant boycott, only included candidates who supported the coup. [II]
At the time of the elections, the US mainstream media had an atrocious record of reporting on the coup itself, as well as on the elections that followed, helping to legitimize a startling attack on Honduran democracy. [III]Despite the illegal nature of the coup and numerous accounts of human rights abuses against supporters of Manuel Zelaya – including violence against protesters, mass arrests and crackdowns on press freedom – the US media portrayed the events in a way that painted Zelaya as a villainous follower of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and legitimized those who ousted him, in part by ignoring their many crimes and abuses. [IV]
Unfortunately, in the year that has followed these two troubling events, little has changed: the Lobo regime has continued the human rights abuses that have plagued the country for more than a year, while the media has downplayed, distorted or ignored the crimes of his regime. The press also continues to amplify calls for the international acceptance of the new leadership, despite continuing reports of abuse. As a result, the US media remains an active participant in an attack on Honduran democracy that has continued for almost a year and a half.
Ignoring the Documentary Record
Since the June 2009 coup and throughout Lobo’s tenure, widespread human rights abuses such as the targeted killings of journalists, the removal of opposition judges, mass arrests, beatings and torture have been thoroughly documented by human rights organizations. Amnesty International’s finding indicated the extent and brutality of abuses against opposition forces in the country:
“Hundreds of people opposed to the coup were beaten and detained by the security forces as protests erupted during the following months [after the coup]. More than 10 people were reportedly killed during the unrest. The police and military also widely misused tear gas and other crowd control equipment. Human rights activists, opposition leaders and judges suffered threats and intimidation, media outlets closed and journalists were censored. There were also reports of security force personnel committing acts of sexual violence against women and girls. Judges viewed as critical of the coup suffered a series of arbitrary transferrals and unfair disciplinary proceedings. Members of the organization Judges for Democracy, which promotes principles of fairness and transparency, formed the vast majority of those targeted.” [V]
“President Lobo has publicly committed to human rights, but has failed to take action to protect them, which is unacceptable. He needs to show he is serious about ending the climate of repression and insecurity in Honduras – otherwise the future stability of the country will remain in jeopardy,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International’s Americas deputy director, in a statement released in June 2010. [VI]
These serious accusations have been largely ignored by the United States mainstream press, leaving the American public in the dark about the true color of a regime that now has the support of US diplomats. Amnesty International released three reports about various abuses to the public and to journalists between August 2009 and June 2010, yet none received any notable mainstream media attention in the United States. [VII] One such report, written by a delegation sent to the country, even gave chilling firsthand testimony from those who were abused; nonetheless, the US press still did not take notice. “We were demonstrating peacefully. Suddenly, the police came towards us, and I started running,” said a 52-year-old teacher named “Fernando,” who was quoted in an August 2009 report. “They grabbed me and shouted ‘Why do you [all] support Zelaya’s government? Whether it’s by choice or by force, you have to be with this government.’ They beat me. I have not yet been informed as to why I am here detained.”[VIII]
Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, has released 20 publications — a variety of reports, press releases and statements — documenting a wide range of abuses in Honduras between the date of the coup and September 10, 2010. [IX]
Amazingly, elite national publications in the United States have paid no attention to these reports. The New York Times has published 53 articles about Honduras since the coup in mid-2009, and Human Rights Watch was only mentioned in one of them — a September 29, 2009 article about two media stations being closed down. In the entire year since Lobo was elected, the Times has not issued an article about a single one of the 20 Human Rights Watch publications about abuses by the regime.[X] Amnesty International, likewise, has only been written about once in the Times, where it was briefly mentioned in a September 3, 2009 article. [XI]
The reason for ignoring the reports cannot possibly be because the Times editors consider Human Rights Watch reports about Latin American leaders to lack news value. When Human Rights Watch issued a report about Venezuela president Hugo Chavez – who, unlike Lobo, is opposed to the favored neoliberal economic policies of the US government – the Times dutifully published a full article about the report, titled “Report Accuses Chavez of Abusing Rights.” [XII]
But the Times, it seems, is rather selective when it comes to reporting on the alleged abuses of world leaders – ignoring them when they are done by allies who share the economic worldview of the United States, and amplifying accusations against those who oppose the Washington Consensus. In fact, even when the Times did manage to mention the accusations against Lobo, they did so in the softest possible terms. Since Lobo’s presidency began, the Times has mentioned human rights abuses in Honduras twice on their news pages. Once was in a June 6 article titled, “Latin America Still Divided Over a Coup in Honduras.”[XIII] The only direct mention of human rights abuses was buried 20 paragraphs deep into a 25-paragraph story and merely said, “Human rights groups complain of arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings of government opponents over the past year. And seven journalists have been killed in the country in recent months, although it has not yet been determined how many of those attacks have political links.” It is interesting that the Times chose to emphasize how politically divided the nation is without mentioning the harrowing data about post-coup Honduras – such as the more than 600 cases of cruel and unusual punishment, at least 23 politically motivated killings and the removal of judges critical of the coup – all of which could help provide readers important context to political realities in the country. [XIV]
The other mention was on July 27, 2010, when the Times covered a report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expressed concern over journalists’ deaths. But this report also failed to document the extent of the ongoing troubles in Honduras.[XV] Tellingly, in the online version of the article, the term “human rights violations” was hyperlinked to a previous Times article. The link takes readers to a nine-month-old article about abuses following the coup that took place before Lobo’s presidency, as if to underscore how little attention the Paper of Record has paid to Lobo’s abuses in the last year. [XVI]
The Washington Post likewise painted the massive violence, not as an egregious abuse of power, but rather as an example of “how difficult it is to bridge regional divisions.” [XVII]
The Times’ editorial page has failed to publish any editorials or op-eds condemning the human rights abuses, (as they do when Iran or Venezuela are accused of abuses), though opponents of Zelaya were given ample space in op-ed pages when the political crisis first began. [XVIII]
Pushing for International Legitimacy
While critics of the Lobo regime have been largely ignored by the media, those who wish to see the regime granted international legitimacy have been given a considerable platform in the US press. The Washington Post, for example, quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the Organization of American States (OAS) to recognize the new regime in Honduras, citing “strong and consistent commitment to democratic governance and constitutional order,” from President Lobo. [XIX] The Post article, amazingly, did not bother to mention Lobo’s human rights record at all, and only acknowledged that within the OAS “a majority of ministers opposed even adding the question of Honduras to the agenda.” Readers were left to figure out for themselves why there was opposition to accepting Honduras into the OAS.
In fact, when the Unites States publicly came out in favor of the return of Honduras to the OAS, the mainstream media gave the development a massive degree of coverage. In addition to the Post, Reuters, the Miami Herald, The New York Times and CNN all covered US expressions of support for the new Honduran government. [XX] Readers in the U.S. were able to read plenty of praise and support for Lobo’s government, but almost no substantial critiques.
The push to recognize the fraudulent regime was not surprising to those who followed the US media coverage of the November 2009 elections, which, despite voting irregularities, reports of voter intimidation and a lack of any monitoring or recognition by the bulk of the international community, were portrayed as a triumph for democracy in the country.
Despite numerous reports of widespread abuses on election day, The Washington Post called the election “mostly peaceful.” [XXI] Bloomberg reported that Lobo was “elected president in a peaceful vote,” to “overcome a five-month political crisis” and quoted political analyst Heather Berkman: “Honduras is definitely getting toward the end of the crisis.” [XXII]The New York Times said in an editorial that there was “wide agreement” that the election “was clean and fair,” despite having declared weeks earlier that “an election run by the coup plotters won’t be credible to Hondurans – and it shouldn’t be to anyone else.” [XXIII]
This glowing portrayal of events, propagated by virtually all mainstream US media outlets, conflicted dramatically with reality. Amnesty International released several reports of voter intimidation and other problems during the elections. Almost every foreign government and election-monitoring agency in the world refused to accept the results of the election.[XXIV] Many media also misreported the turnout figures, relying on the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s grossly exaggerated numbers of about 61 percent when in fact turnout was actually below 50 percent.[XXV] But by the time the truth came out, these false numbers had already been used to justify recognition of the sham elections by the United States and the US media. The “turnout appears to have exceeded that of the last presidential election,” the US State Department said in a statement. “This shows that given the opportunity to express themselves, the Honduran people have viewed the election as an important part of the solution to the political crisis in their country.”[XXVI]
In fact, US media coverage has served to help legitimize the plotters and beneficiaries of the 2009 coup from the very start. When Zelaya was forced out of office, the US media painted him as a “a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela,” who was ousted by the US-backed Honduran military, which was “acting to defend the law” after “months of tensions over [Zelaya’s] efforts to lift presidential term limits” – efforts that “critics said [were] part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president.”[XXVII] Opinion writers asked, “Who Cares About Zelaya?” who was merely a “a typical Honduran politician” with a “lust for power,” whose “goal seemed to be a change from our democratic system into a kind of 21st-century socialism … a Hugo Chavez-type of government.”[XXVIII]
Erasing the Coup
Since the toppling of Zelaya and now throughout Lobo’s presidency, the US media has provided a narrative that has helped enable the democratic crisis in Honduras. An article in Reuters from earlier this year recently observed, quite accurately, that “Honduras is trying to erase memories of the coup,” citing how “a Supreme Court judge cleared military leaders of any wrongdoing … after prosecutors accused them of abuse of power for rousting Zelaya from his bed at gunpoint.” [XXIX]
Indeed, if the illegitimate Honduran government is trying to erase memories of the illegal coup and further tighten its control over the nation, it has no stronger ally than the US media.
[III] Michael Corcoran. “A Tale of Two Elections: Iran and Honduras,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (March/April 2010).
[V] “New Honduras President must order investigation into rights abuses,” Amnesty International. January 26, 2010.
[VII] Data is from a search on AmnestyInternational.org
[VIII] “Honduras: Photos and testimony of protestors shows extent of police violence,” Amnesty International, August 19, 2010.
[IX] Data is from a search of HRW.org
[X] Data is from a Lexis-Nexis search
[XII] Simon Romero. “Report Accuses Chavez of Abusing Rights,” The New York Times, September 18, 2010.
[XIII] Marc Lacey. “Latin America Still Divided Over a Coup in Honduras,” The New York Times, June 6 2010.
[XIV] Data on cruel and unusual punishment is from the Center for Prevention and Treatment of Torture, as cited by Adrienne Pine. “Honduras: ‘Reconciliation’ vs. Reality,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (March/April 2010).
[XV] Elizabeth Kaplan, “Honduras Faces Criticism Over Journalist Killings After a Coup,” The New York Times, July 27, 2010.
[XVI] Article links to Elizabeth Kaplan, “Honduran Security Forces Accused of Abuse,” The New York Times, October 5, 2010.
[XVII] Glenn Kessler. “Clinton Urges OAS to Let Honduras Rejoin,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2010.
[XVIII] For examples of anti-Zelaya op-eds see: Roger Marin Neda, “Who Cares About Zelaya?,” The New York Times, July 7, 2009.
[XIX] As quoted in: Glenn Kessler. “Clinton Urges OAS to Let Honduras Rejoin,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2010.
[XX] “U.S. says time for OAS to readmit Honduras,” Reuters, May 6, 2010, Mark Landler; “Clinton pleads case for Honduras,” The New York Times. June 7, 2010, Jim Wyss; “OAS inches toward readmitting Honduras,” Miami Herald, June 9, 2010; “Latin leaders seek unity in regional summit,” CNN World. February 22, 2010.
[XXI] Mary Beth Sheridan, “Hondurans Go to Polls, Hoping to End Crisis,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2009.
[XXII] Helen Murphy and Eric Sabo, “Lobo Wins Honduran Presidency After Peaceful Vote,” Bloomberg.com, November 30, 2009.
[XXIII] “The Honduran Conundrum,” The New York Times (editorial), December 5, 2009; “Coup, Uninterrupted,” The New York Times (editorial), November 7, 2009.
[XXIV] For abuses in election see: “Independent Investigation Needed Into Honduras Human Rights Abuses,” Amnesty International, December 3, 2009; for lack of acceptance from international agencies see: Alyssa Figueroa “Honduras Down the Memory Hole,” Extra!, August 2010.
[XXV] Mariano Castillo, “Honduran Election Turnout Lower Than First Estimated,” CNN.com, December 22, 2009.
[XXVI] Ian Kelly, “Honduran Election,” U.S. Department of State, November 29, 2009.
[XXVII] Elizabeth Malkin, “Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup,” The New York Times, June 29, 2009.
[XXVIII] Roger Marin Neda, “Who Cares About Zelaya?” The New York Times, July 7, 2009.
[XXIX] Sean Mattson and Gustavo Palencia, “Honduran Zelaya flies into exile, ending crisis,” Reuters. January 27, 2010.