Honduras Down the Memory Hole

U.S. media ignore the aftermath of dubious elections they praised

Source: Extra!

A year after a military coup removed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya from office, Hondurans are still living under a repressive government—but the U.S. is pushing Latin American countries to join it in normalizing relations with the regionally ostracized nation.

Reporting from a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), the New York Times (6/8/10) dutifully relayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that “we saw the free and fair election of President [Porfirio] Lobo,’’ noting on the other hand that “several foreign ministers inveighed against Mr. Lobo’s government, which they said had violated human rights.” The Times left it up to readers to guess who might have been right. The Washington Post (6/8/10) reported that this debate is simply an indication of “how difficult it is to bridge regional divisions.”

Such coverage is no surprise, given the media’s enthusiastic response to Lobo’s election in January. After the June 28, 2009, coup, the U.S. and many Latin American countries said they would refuse to recognize the elections in November if Zelaya wasn’t restored to office to finish out his term (Washington Post, 9/4/09). Given that the elections would be held under the auspices of a coup regime, the UN, the OAS, the EU and the Carter Center didn’t send observers (Real News Network, 4/08/10).

Before the election was held, however, the U.S. backed off this position—a reversal cheered in the U.S. press. Washington Post columnist Edward Schumacher-Matos (11/27/09) declared that Obama was “alone, and right, on Honduras,” because the election “will come off favorably enough.” A Post editorial (11/28/09) agreed, arguing that Hondurans were eager for the election because they “have little taste for Mr. Zelaya, who embraced the leftist populism of Hugo Chavez.” (See FAIR Action Alert, 9/24/09.) Yet an August 2009 poll by the Honduran polling company COIMER & OP found that 52 percent supported Zelaya’s return to presidency, while 33 percent opposed it. In the same poll, those who expressed an opinion came out 3-to-1 against the coup (Narcosphere, 10/7/09).

The election went on, with many publications (e.g., Washington Post, L.A. Times, both 11/30/09) deeming it “peaceful,” while at the same time reporting that 500 protesters were targeted with tear gas. There was little coverage of the beatings and arrests leading up to the election, or of the nearly 5,000 soldiers dispersed throughout the country to enforce a state of emergency (Guardian, 11/28/09).

The New York Times, which a few weeks before the election (11/7/09) held that “an election run by the coup plotters won’t be credible to Hondurans—and it shouldn’t be to anyone else,” afterwards wrote (12/5/09), “there is wide agreement that last week’s presidential election in Honduras …was clean and fair.”

Most outlets declared that voter turnout was near 60 percent, taking the word of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The Miami Herald (12/1/09) argued that this supposed turnout meant that “the interim government, which has the support of virtually all the major factions of Honduran society…can now claim that it presided over a fair and credible election.” The Wall Street Journal (11/29/10) called the elections “a win for all people who yearn for liberty.”

The Tribunal’s announcement, however, contradicted its own turnout data—which at the time hovered at 49.2 percent—as well as those of the only independent Honduran organization to do exit polling, which put the figure at 47.6 percent (Real News Network, 12/8/09), 7 percentage points lower than the last presidential election (Washington Post, 12/1/10). There were also “an unusually high number of null and blank ballots—about 6 percent” WashingtonPost.com, 11/30/09).

After helping legitimize Lobo’s presidency, U.S. media ignored the aftermath. Amnesty International (6/28/10) recently “accused the Honduran authorities of failing to address serious human rights violations that followed the coup.” The Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (2/28/10) reported 310 human rights violations just 30 days into Lobo’s presidency. At least nine journalists have been killed (AP, 6/15/10), making Honduras the world’s most dangerous country for journalists in the first quarter of 2010 (Reporters Without Borders, 6/16/10). Nobody has been arrested for these murders.

According to the New York Times (6/6/10), the dismissal of four lower-court judges in May who were critical of the coup was only an illustration of the “country’s political divide”—one that the Times and its media brethren seem happy to put behind them.