Since the June 28 military coup in Honduras, in which President Manuel Zelaya was deposed, U.S. news reporting has been marred by pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage. This was particularly evident in four ways: false claims that Zelaya had sought to extend his term in office; claims that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup; imbalanced reporting of U.S. congressional opinion on the coup; and under-reporting of repression in Honduras under the coup government.
First, did Zelaya seek to extend his term in office? After some false starts—including the presentation of an obviously forged letter of resignation—the coup leaders have justified their actions by claiming that Zelaya planned to hold a national referendum that would grant him a second turn in office. This, they say, violated Article 239 of the 1982 Honduran Constitution, which states not only that presidents serve only one term, but also that any official who even voices support for abolishing term limits shall cease their duties.1
Thus, if supporters of the coup could get observers to accept their claim that Zelaya was acting to do away with presidential term limits, they would appear to have had a plausible case to justify his removal from office. This claim of a Zelaya power grab often appeared in early reports in the U.S. press, without the presentation of any competing claim or any attempt to establish the truth of the matter.
For example, the June 28 article on the coup in The New York Times reported: “Critics said [the referendum] was part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the Constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president.”2 This claim was not balanced by an opposing point of view, still less any attempt to inform the reader of whether the claim is accurate. The next day’s Times report quoted Obama administration officials as saying they “had been working for several weeks to try to head off a political crisis in Honduras as the confrontation between Mr. Zelaya and the military over his efforts to lift presidential term limits escalated.”3 Here it is simply presented as undisputed fact that Zelaya sought to lift presidential term limits.
On June 30, the Times again reported: “Thousands of [Zelaya’s] opponents turned out on Tuesday to denounce him as a dictator who had been illegally scheming to subvert the Constitution by ending the one-term limit for presidents.”4 Again, there was no balancing of the claim, no effort to assess whether it is accurate. Of course, it was possible for U.S. media to report this claim differently. This is how it was characterized in the initial report in The Washington Post:
“Zelaya was removed from office as Hondurans prepared to vote Sunday in a nonbinding referendum asking them whether they would support a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya’s critics said he wanted to use the referendum to open the door to reelection after his term ends in January 2010, an assertion that he denied.”5
The Post article tells us that the referendum was non-binding and that the question concerned a constitutional assembly. It reports the allegation that Zelaya sought reelection, but it also reports Zelaya’s denial of the allegation. It reports the allegation in a form that could be interpreted as plausible: It says critics allege Zelaya sought reelection “after his term ends”—i.e., perhaps in some future election, after his term ends in January 2010, not in the November election he would have had to stand in to succeed himself as president.
If competing claims or attempts to establish the truth had appeared, the coverage might have noted that the “referendum” was in fact a non-binding advisory poll set to be held on June 28, the day Zelaya was deposed; that the question did not address term limits at all, but asked voters if they supported a referendum for a constitutional convention on the November ballot; that even if most voters had favored a constitutional assembly, the poll would have caused nothing to happen; and that the same November ballot was to elect Zelaya’s successor, in an election in which he was not a candidate, so there was no conceivable way that allowing the June 28 advisory ballot to go forward would have caused Zelaya’s term to be extended.
Nonetheless, did a plurality of Hondurans support the coup? On July 9, the pro-coup Honduran newspaper La Prensa published results from an opinion poll it had commissioned from CID-Gallup purporting to show that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup. The following day, The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, reporting that the poll had found that “41% of Hondurans said the coup was justified, while 28% were opposed.” The report continued: “The survey, conducted between June 30 and July 4, supported anecdotal evidence of anger at Mr. Zelaya. While thousands of Hondurans take to the streets almost daily to protest the ouster, larger crowds often demonstrate in favor of the coup.”6
The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and Reuters reported the same. However, three other outlets—The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Voice of America—presented the poll results quite differently on the same day.7 As the Times put it: “According to a face-to-face survey of some 1,200 people, 46 percent of Hondurans disagreed with Mr. Zelaya’s ouster and 41 percent said they approved of it.”
What generated these disparate reports? As the Journal, the Monitor, and the Post subsequently acknowledged in clarifications, the CID-Gallup poll asked two related questions, but La Prensa published only one of them—the one more favorable to their pro-coup position. The first question asked if the removal of Zelaya was justified.8 Forty-one percent said removal was justified, while 28% disagreed and 31% did not know or did not answer. The second question asked if respondents agreed with the actions to remove Zelaya; 46% said they disagreed, and 41% agreed.
Clearly, it is the second question that refers to the actual events that took place—the coup. One welcomes that the Monitor, the Journal, and the Post published clarifications, but, unfortunately, a clarification after the fact does not undo the misinformation of the original report. Responding to criticism of the Monitor report, reporter Sara Miller Llana wrote, “In retrospect, I wish I had seen both questions and both results.”9 But this raises the question of why the Monitor—and the Journal, the Post, and Reuters—apparently relied on La Prensa as a sole source, when other information was available to other outlets.
U.S. coverage also suffered from imbalance on the question of U.S. congressional representatives’ reaction to the coup. On August 7, Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and 16 other House Democrats sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “publicly denounce the use of violence and repression of peaceful protestors, the murder of peaceful political organizers and all forms of censorship and intimidation directed at media outlets” under the Honduran coup government.10 They also asked the president to fully acknowledge that a military coup took place; to suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Honduras; freeze the U.S. bank accounts and assets of those involved in the coup; and deny them entry into the United States.
The only media report on Grijalva’s letter or his opposition to the coup appears to have appeared a week later in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill—an insider publication that is unlikely to affect other press coverage or public opinion.11 Meanwhile, Republican congressional support for the coup has received significant attention, mentioned in reports on Honduras by The New York Times, the Associated Press, and the McClatchy Newspapers, among others.12
The media also failed to report on repression in Honduras under the coup regime in the weeks following the coup. After the coup, there was a steady stream of reports from human rights organizations on repression in Honduras. The day after the coup, Amnesty International expressed concern that Hondurans were being detained by the authorities merely for protesting the coup and that the authorities were closing TV stations and restricting the media.13 On July 3, Amnesty denounced “an escalation in human rights abuses in Honduras,” again alleged that Hondurans were being arrested for peaceful protest, and cited reports of attacks on radio stations.14
But in the first seven weeks following the coup, neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post mentioned Amnesty’s allegations. It was not until August 18, when Amnesty issued another report on Honduras, that the mainstream press finally gave some consideration to the organization’s findings. Meanwhile, on July 2, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Organization of American States, expressing concern about reports of “serious abuses committed by Honduran security forces,” including “excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, and acts of censorship.”15 But during this period there was no mention of Human Rights Watch’s criticism in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Indeed, a keyword search performed 90 days after the coup on the Times website for “Human Rights Watch” and “Honduras” yielded only one result.
Moreover, the Times was slow to acknowledge reports of extra-judicial killings in Honduras. On August 9, the Times reported, “So far, however, only two people have been killed in the weeks of political strife since the coup.”16 Yet by August 2, reports from human rights and media sources had already emerged of at least 10 people, many of them Zelaya supporters, murdered under suspicious circumstances in the country.17
It cannot be shocking to anyone in the United States who has followed these issues that there has been a gap between U.S. press coverage of the Honduran crisis and the reality on the ground. However, the recognition of bias in U.S. coverage of Latin America should not lead to cynicism that nothing can be done about it.
The clarifications that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post after these publications reported that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup followed citizens’ letters of protest to those publications.
And while the press has an impact on the political system, it is also affected by it. If progressive members of Congress had been more vocal in their criticism immediately following the coup, the press coverage would likely have been better. And they would likely have been more vocal if they were hearing more concern from their constituents. In the near-term future, if we want to see a different result, we need more citizen activism around U.S. policy in the region.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy (justforeignpolicy.org). He edits the Just Foreign Policy daily news summary and writes a blog on The Huffington Post.
1. “Constitución Política de la República de Honduras de 1982,” Political Database of the Americas, Georgetown University (pdba.georgetown.edu).
2. Elisabeth Malkin, “Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup,” The New York Times, June 28, 2009.
3. Helene Cooper and Marc Lacey, “In a Coup in Honduras, Ghosts of Past U.S. Policies,” The New York Times, June 29, 2009.
4. Marc Lacey, “After Losing Honduras, Ousted Leader Wins International Support,” The New York Times, June 30, 2009.
5. William Booth and Juan Forero, “Honduran Military Ousts President,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2009.
6. José Córdoba and David Lubnow, “Honduran Officials Begin Talks on Country’s Political Future,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2009.
7. Ginger Thompson, “Honduras Conflict Talks Yield Little Movement,” The New York Times, July 10, 2009; Marianela Jimenez, “No Easy End in Sight for Honduras Coup Crisis,” the Associated Press, July 11; Diana Logreira and Gesell Tobías, “41-46: Honduras un país dividido,” Voice of America, July 9, 2009.
8. Sara Miller Llana, “Honduras: Deciphering Poll Numbers,” Christian Science Monitor, July 14, 2009.
10. “Grijalva, Members of Congress Call on President Obama to Take Further Measures Against Honduran Coup Regime,” grijalva.house.gov, August 11, 2009.
11. Mike Soraghan, “Liberals Urge Obama to Do More on Honduras,” The Hill, August 11, 2009.
12. Ginger Thompson, “Honduras Conflict Yields Little Movement,” The New York Times, July 11, 2009; Morgan Lee, “Zelaya Prepares Another Trip to Honduras Border,” the Associated Press, July 25, 2009; “Zelaya Asks for More International Support,” McClatchy Newspapers, July 27, 2009.
13. “Honduras: Human Rights and Rule of Law at Serious Risk,” Amnesty International, June 29, 2009.
14. “Honduras: Intimidation of Media Workers and Protestors Rising,” Amnesty International, July 3, 2009.
15. “Honduras: OAS Should Press for Rights Protections,” José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch, July 2, 2009.
16. Ginger Thompson, “President’s Ouster Highlights a Divide in Honduras,” The New York Times, August 9, 2009.
17. “Obama Administration Should Demand an End to Coup Regime’s Killings in Honduras, CEPR Co-Director Urges,” press release, Center for Economic and Policy Research, August 13, 2009.