Media Beat, July 7, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Human Rights and Media Wrongs
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."