"The Press Has Blood on Its Hands"
- in Guatemala
A FAIR / CounterSpin interview with Allan Nairn
from Extra! May / June 1999 - Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (FAIR)
More than 200, 000 Guatemalan civilians were killed or disappeared
during 36 years of civil war ending in 1996, according to a report
from the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission released
in February. The nine-volume, 3,500-page report found that U.S.
assistance was a key factor in human rights violations during
the armed conflict. Yet Guatemala's human rights ordeal has been
almost invisible in U.S. press coverage.
FAIR's CounterSpin (3/4/99) talked about press coverage of
the report and of Guatemala with Allan Nairn, who reported extensively
from that country in the early 1980s-a period, according to the
report, when the Guatemalan government was carrying out genocide
against Mayan community.
CounterSpin: Since the report's release, we've seen several
articles and columns that, while they acknowledge the U.S. involvement
in these human rights violations, seem to spend as much or more
time congratulating the U.S. for its role in releasing the documents
that aided the commission. Even a piece by Kate Doyle from the
nonprofit National Security Archives (New York Times, 3/1/99)
begins, "Along with a certain degree of shame, the U.S. can
take pride in the report released last week." What do you
make of that?
Allan Nairn: The Archives and Kate have done excellent work,
but that's an outlandish statement. It's as if someone went into
your house, burned it down, killed your family, took some notes,
and then a decade after the fact they come up to you and say,
"By the way, would you like to see the notes?" And you're
supposed to say, 'Well, thank you very much."
These are crimes against humanity: torture, genocide. Even
if you presume that this U.S. administration is taking a different
approach than the previous ones, if they were to own up to this
and behave appropriately after the fact, they would initiate prosecution.
But of course they wouldn't do that, because that would involve
prosecuting not just low-level officials, but people like Elliott
Abrams, secretaries of state, presidents.
CS: In a Wall Street Journal piece from March 3, "Guatemala's
Troubles Weren't Made in the U.S.A.," Mark Falcoff from the
American Enterprise Institute comments on the tendency to exaggerate
the foreign role in Guatemala. Is this common in the media, and
was this common throughout the '80s?
AN: The U.S. role in Guatemala was about as extensive as can
be. It started with an invasion by the United States in which
the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government in 1954
and put the military in power and began Guatemala's nightmare.
It continued in '63-'64 with the establishment of a chain of security
agencies throughout Latin America that were established by the
AID Public Safety Program and the CIA.
In the late '60s, in the provinces of Zacapa and Izabal in
Guatemala, U.S. Green Berets actually went into the field to assist
the Mano Blanca death squads established by the Guatemalan army
as they killed some 10,000 Guatemalan civilians.
In '82 and '83, as Gen. Rios Montt was sending military sweeps
into the northwest highlands, annihilating by their own count
662 rural villages, Reagan went down, embraced Rios Montt, said
Guatemala was getting a bum rap on human rights. The U.S. military
general attaché at the time told me the sweep strategy
was in large part his idea, and that he was working hand in hand
with Gen. Benedicto Lucas to carry it out. It's hard to overstate
the U.S. role, because the U.S. role was so extensive.
To get back to your question about the press, the big corporate
press in the U.S. was not covering the U.S. role at all. They
were barely covering the fact that the mass killings were taking
place in Guatemala. The New York Times, for example, would run
a couple of Guatemala pieces every few months. That was about
the rhythm of their coverage in the early '80s.
The first time they devoted a single prominent piece to a
massacre was when a particular massacre happened in the mid-'80s,
which they blamed on the guerrillas. The guerrillas did do some
massacres, according to the truth commission. The truth commission
blamed them for 3 percent of the atrocities, as against 93 percent
for the army. But it turned out, this one that the Times blamed
on the guerrillas later turned out to actually have been done
by the army.
If this had actually been covered as it was happening, if
it had been on the front page day after day as the 662 rural villages
were leveled and their inhabitants raped and tortured and burned
in front of their families, this would not have been able to happen,
because the public would not have stood for this. So the press
also has blood on its hands, together with the U.S. government,
because any competent reporter who went down could see it. In
'82 the Guatemalan bishops issued a pastoral letter saying the
assassinations had reached the point of genocide. This was out
there, it was just not reported, so the killing continued.
CS: In an exception to that media blackout on Guatemala, you
had an op-ed in the New York Times in 1983 (4/4/83), in which
you said: "The unavoidable choice for the United States and
Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, is whether we'll accept
radical change or keep the oligarchy in power by supporting this
campaign of mass annihilation." You also said that moderates
and liberals are confused about these issues, because they keep
dodging that choice. Are things any different now?
AN: Well, the U.S. made the choice. They supported that campaign
of mass annihilation. At the time, to the extent to which political
people here engaged with the Guatemala issue at all, the way they
would put it was, well, we should try to put human rights conditions
on U.S. assistance to the Guatemalan military.
In fact, if you took a straightforward look at the situation,
the only way you would not be on the side of mass killing would
be to say we're going to abandon these armies. And if the U.S.
had pulled the plug on the Guatemalan army, the Salvadoran army,
I think they would have lasted about as long as the armies in
Eastern Europe did after Moscow pulled the plug on them. These
are client, satellite states, heavily dependent on external U.S.
support. Any idea of making their conduct a little nicer was just
pure nonsense, because their survival mechanism was mass killing.
CS: And of course media contribute to the confusion about
laying out the starkness of that choice by giving credence to
the third way, middle road plans or suggesting that you can have
a little bit of human rights.
AN: To the extent they talked of it at all. The pace of the
coverage of Guatemala was so limited that even if each article
that appeared had been perfectly accurate-most of them were grossly
distorted, if you look at the corporate press-but even if each
one had been an excellent, well-documented, factual piece, it
still wouldn't have mattered because they appeared so infrequently.
In order for something to have impact it has to be remembered.
And for something to be remembered, it has to be repeated a few
times. If you don't get the rhythm or repetition, it doesn't enter
the public mind. Guatemala is a classic example of that. Here
was this bloodletting going on with direct U.S. participation
and the American public didn't know about it.
CS: Media can certainly create that drumbeat around an issue
if they choose to. The crescendo of coverage demands an answer
or a response....
AN: And if you study the cases in which they do it, almost
without exception, it's when Washington initiates it. And the
officials in Washington are smart people. They're not going to
come out and start a drumbeat on an issue that makes them look
bad, in a case where they're backing a genocide. They're going
to start a drumbeat on atrocities, on real atrocities or sometimes
even imagined atrocities, on the part of official enemies.
They do it on a Noriega, or they do it on a Saddam Hussein.
And suddenly these people and places that were previously unknown
to the American public, suddenly they're on everybody's mind and
everybody's lips because every time you open the paper there it
is, every time you turn on the TV there it is.
But the press does not operate in a truly independent way.
They let Washington set that agenda. I recently was part of a
debate here in New York, a broadcast forum, with people from the
New York Times, CBS, NBC and a few other outlets. I made these
points and they were absolutely outraged. First, that I used the
term "corporate press." Second, the idea that they weren't
acting truly independently.
My answer to that is just look at the record. Just look at
the record in cases where you have a drumbeat of coverage and
the cases where you don't; you will find that unless the president
or the secretary of state or the Congressional leadership are
putting a foreign issue on a regular, repeated, memorable basis,
you don't do it. You wait for them to take the lead.
CS: Can we take anything away from the coverage of the release
of this report? Does it tell us anything about the way the media
may be reporting or not reporting on actions of the United States
AN: I think the reason a few things can be said today is because
the Guatemalans are already dead. Right now the U.S. is involved
in backing armies committing atrocities in places like Indonesia,
East Timor and Colombia. And you don't get aggressive, up front
reporting there, with few exceptions. Occasionally, you'll get
a piece here and there. But nothing that repeats it, and puts
it in the public mind, so the public says, "Gee, this is
an issue. Should we really be supporting this army which backs
paramilitaries in Colombia that are assassinating human rights
workers?" That question is not on the lips of Americans,
because the press has not put it out there.
In addition to Guatemala, Allan Nairn has reported on human
rights in Haiti, East Timor and El Salvador, among other places.
He is the author of the forthcoming book Our Kind of Guys: the
U.S. and the Indonesian Military.
and Media Control