One Year After the Honduran Election

It has been nearly a year since Honduras held elections that were deemed illegitimate by most of the international community and which resulted in the presidency of Porfirio Lobo, a conservative politician and agricultural landowner. The election occurred just months after an illegal coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya and only included candidates who supported the coup.


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 U.S. media distorted the events, painting Zelaya as a villainous follower of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and legitimizing those who ousted him, in part, by ignoring their many crimes and abuses.


Unfortunately, in the year that has followed, little has changed. The Lobo regime has continued the human rights abuses, while the U.S. media has downplayed, distorted, or ignored the crimes of his regime. The press also continues to amplify calls for international acceptance of the new leadership, despite reports of abuse.


Ignoring The Record


Throughout Lobo's tenure, widespread human rights abuses, such as the killing of journalists, the removal of opposition judges, mass arrests, beatings, and torture have been thoroughly documented by human rights organizations. Amnesty International's findings indicate the extent and brutality of abuses: "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 ten 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."


Amnesty International released three reports about various abuses to journalists between August 2009 and June 2010, yet none received any notable mainstream media attention in the United States. One such report, written by a delegation sent to Honduras, gave chilling testimony of those who were abused.


Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, has also released a variety of reports, press releases, and statements documenting a wide range of abuses in Honduras between the coup and September 10, 2010.


Amazingly, elite national publications in the United States 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. Amnesty International, likewise, has only been written about once, briefly, in a September 3, 2009 article.


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's President Hugo Chavez—who, unlike Lobo, is opposed to the neoliberal economic policies of the U.S. government—the Times dutifully published a full article about the report titled "Report Accuses Chavez of Abusing Rights."


Since the Lobo presidency began the Times has mentioned human rights abuses in Honduras twice on their news pages—once in a June 6 article titled "Latin America Still Divided Over a Coup in Honduras." The only mention of human rights abuses was buried 20 paragraphs 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.


The other mention was when the Times covered a report on July 27, 2010 released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expressed concern over the deaths of journalists. But this report also failed to truly document the extent of the ongoing troubles in Honduras. 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. 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."


Pushing For Legitimacy


While critics of the Lobo regime have been largely ignored by the media, those who wish to see the regime be granted international legitimacy have been given a considerable platform in the U.S. press. The Washington Post, for example, quoted Secretary of State 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. The Post article 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 why there was opposition to accepting Honduras into the OAS, since the Post failed to give any reasons.


In fact, when the United States came out in favor of returning Honduras to the OAS, mainstream media gave it massive coverage. In addition to the Post, Reuters, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and CNN all covered U.S. support for the new Honduran government.


The push to recognize the fraudulent regime was not surprising to those who followed the U.S. media coverage of the November 2009 elections, which—despite being marred by reports of voting irregularities and voter intimidation—was portrayed as a triumph for democracy in the country.


Ignoring numerous reports of widespread abuses on election day, the Washington Post called the election "mostly peaceful." Bloomberg reported that Lobo was "elected president in a peaceful vote" to "overcome a five-month political crisis" and quoted political analyst Heather Berkman saying: "Honduras is definitely getting toward the end of the crisis." A New York Times editorial claimed that there was "wide agreement" 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."


This glowing portrayal of the election, propagated by virtually all mainstream U.S. media outlets, conflicted dramatically with reality. Amnesty International released several reports of voter intimidation and other such problems during the elections. 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 below 50 percent. But by the time the truth came out, these false numbers had already been used to justify the sham elections. The "turnout appears to have exceeded that of the last presidential election," the U.S. 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."


The U.S. media coverage has served to help legitimize the plotters and beneficiaries of the 2009 coup from the start. When Zelaya was forced out of office, the U.S. media painted him as "a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela," who was ousted by the U.S.-backed Honduran military "acting to defend the law." Opinion writers asked, "Who Cares About Zelaya?" He was merely "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 Chávez-type of government."


An article in Reuters earlier in 2010 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." Indeed, if the illegitimate Honduran government is trying to erase memories of the illegal coup and tighten control over the nation, it has no stronger ally than the U.S. media.


Michael Corcoran is a freelance journalist and media critic who has written for NACLA Report on the Americas and Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), among other outlets.