The furore over Mahmoud Ahmajinedad’s apparent success in last months Iranian presidential elections tells us a few important things about how the dominant media feels democratic deficiencies, alleged or otherwise, should be reported.
Readers were warned that the continued protests against the result posed serious risks for “opposition sympathisers, faced with the prospect of more broken heads, and worse.”4 The regime had “reverted to barbarism”5 – opting to corroborate the voting slip with the “baton and teargass.” Yet, despite this threat of violence, “tens of thousands again returned to the streets in defiance of an interior ministry ban,”6 in a display of “resistance”7 that has “rocked the country.”8
Opinion pieces recounted personal stories of the plight of dissenters within the “democratic rebellion”9: one “highly regarded social scientist” stood “baselessly accused of working with a US research organisation to foment a “velvet revolution” to overthrow the Iranian government,”10 while another was gunned down “collapsing like a young faun shot by poachers”11 as she watched street protests.
Clearly the possibility of election fraud is considered a very serious matter, offering, according to the Irish Times, a “case study in the argument between interventionists and those who say political change must be allowed to develop autonomously within authoritarian regimes.”12 Important enough then to potentially justify compromising a country’s sovereignty.
Yet, at the very same time the media magnifying glass was coinciding with US gun sights by focusing on Iran, a much clearer case of repression was occurring in Latin America. This time though, readers were spared personal accounts of violence and imprisonment, they were not compelled by footage of youthful street protests and more importantly, they were offered no clear cut narrative of good vs evil, democratic vs autocratic. In this instance, anti-democratic violence is somehow mitigated by spurious justification.
Last month “amid the rattle of gunfire”13 a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Honduras. The President, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped and exiled to Costa Rica. He currently resides across the border from Honduras in Nicaragua, where he is attempting to negotiate the terms of his return.
The military response to ongoing protests that followed the coup has resulted in a number of confirmed deaths, with scores injured, 45 in just one single day.14 The OAS, the EU, the UN and numerous world leaders have publicly condemned the coup and sought to put pressure on the coup leaders to relinquish their grip on power and allow the elected president to return.
All this has been reported by the Irish media, in so far as copying and pasting wire stories constitutes reporting. Surprisingly though, the passion and arguably unfounded certainty of the reporting on Iran is no where in evidence this time round.
The Irish Times’ first article on the coup led with the following overview: “The Honduran Supreme Court said it had ordered the army to oust Mr Zelaya today because of his unlawful plan to hold a public vote on presidential re-election.”15 Another Irish Times article reported that Zelaya was thrown out of the country after he “upset the army by trying to win re-election.”16 The Irish Independent too, described “a left-winger overthrown by a military-led coup for trying to extend his time in office.”17
From the outset then, the narrative is skewed in favour of the coup leaders: the “Supreme Court” ordered the removal of Mr Zelaya when “fears were confirmed”18 that the president intended to hold a public vote on term limits. In fact, the vote was “designed to assess the public mood for a constitutional referendum that would allow Honduran presidents to serve more than one term.”19 A constitutional change that Zelaya could not have availed of since even “if the November referendum had been held and passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January…The most that could be said is that if a new constitution were eventually approved, Zelaya might have been able to run for a second term at some future date.”20
Mass protests and mass strikes followed the coup, causing the military to respond with a violently imposed curfew, under the cover of widespread censorship. Yet far from highlighting the oppressiveness of this prison state control the media reported that the coup leaders had put the country “under lockdown” as they “attempted to return the country to a state of order.”21 RTE uncritically voiced the concerns of the coup leaders, now referred to as the “interim government,” who initiated the curfew simply to counter “’open threats by groups who seek to provoke disturbances and disorder…and to protect the people and their goods.'”22
The Irish Examiner went to great lengths to manufacture some semblance of balance in order to justify the existence of an “interim government” as opposed a military backed regime. Describing a “showdown” between sides – the Examiner pitted Mr Zelaya’s supporters, “mostly the country’s poor and middle class” against “the largely well-to-do backers of the coup that ousted him.”23 A more lopsided balancing act would be hard to come by.
On 6th July an attempted return by President Zelaya was scuppered when his plane was refused permission to land. Protesters who had gathered to welcome the exiled president were instead greeted at the main airport in the capital Tegucigalpa by military gunfire, leaving two dead. Yet, unlike the Iranian “young faun shot by poachers” media reports chose to focus on the excuses for killing unarmed protesters. They were “trying to break down a perimeter fence” and attempting to “storm the runway”25 explained the Irish Independent, devoting only a single sentence to the murdered protesters. RTE, similarly, described how troops “fended off”26 thousands of Mr Zelaya’s supporters.
Even the basic facts of the coup were to be disputed. Not until half way through the first Irish Times report on the coup does the reader hear the perspective of the elected leader, even then, his account is somehow put in doubt: “The president told Venezuela-based Telesur television station that he was “kidnapped”27 by soldiers.” The word “kidnapped” placed in quotation marks, as if a president led by soldiers to plane in his pyjamas and transported out of his own country against his will did not reasonably constitute kidnapping.
The next day the Irish Times expanded on the wire story, filling in some gaps, and inadvertently evoking images of an unappreciative Late Late Show holiday winner: “troops came for Mr Zelaya, an ally of socialist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, around dawn and took him from his residence.” He was then “whisked away”28 to Costa Rica.
Even the choice of complementary facts accompanying reports appears to lend misplaced credibility to the ousters, for instance one report ended with the loaded factoid: “Recent opinion polls indicate public support for Mr Zelaya has fallen as low as 30 per cent.”29 Marking perhaps the first time opinion polls have been used to justify armed takeover of government. A fact that must have sent shivers up Brian Cowen’s spine.
Despite this lacklustre reporting style, the gravity of the situation is not lost on many reporters. The coup is recognised as “a key test for democracy in Latin America.”30 A simple question, according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of “whether democracy in Honduras continues.”31 Yet opinion writers have not been as expectedly vocal in calling for US mediation and / or intervention, depending on their political bent. Despite the fact the “United States still has 600 troops stationed at Soto Cano air base,”32 and more interestingly, that the two generals who led the coup were themselves trained by the US military in the infamous US School of the Americas.33
Historical context too is limited to vague and misleading comments such as: “Honduras was a staunch US ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight left-wing guerrillas,”34 which falsely indicates US support for Central American democracy. In reality this supposedly benevolent alliance was in fact the operation of turning “Honduras into a base for the US attack against [the popular left wing Sandinista government of] Nicaragua.”35
And while journalists go to great pains to mention that Zelaya is a friend of the “radical”36 “socialist”37 president and US Latin America region archenemy Hugo Chavez, they somehow fail to mention the US backed attempt to oust Chavez in 2002.38
These subtle differences in reporting between Iran and Honduras expose to some small degree how a history of western intervention, delineated by outright support or passive acceptance of countless coups against popular governance, can be repeated over and over without public outrage. A nuance that is best summed up, again with continuing predictability, by “the authoritative and independent commentator and analyst on important events,”39 the Irish Times:
“There is a conflict of rights at stake. Which one should have precedence? – defending the existing single four-year term or allowing an existing president to sound out voters’ opinions on making a constitutional amendment so that he can seek a second one?”40
Clearly then, if the ‘paper of record’ deems that a proposed constitutional amendment paired with low opinion ratings spells military coup, Brian Cowen should really be packing for a few weeks in the sun.