Saturday, October 17, 2009

Honduras: U.S. media fail

Tim Padgett's writing for Time on Honduras has been significantly better than that of many U.S. reporters. But that's faint praise, and his latest piece contains several seriously problematic passages.

1. Micheletti ... lifted many of his emergency decrees during a visit last week by U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen... But human-rights groups like Amnesty International say police and soldiers are still blocking street protests.

The decree has not been lifted. A state of siege has been in effect since Sept. 26, when the decree suspending constitutional rights of assembly and free expression (issued on Sept. 22) was published in Honduras' federal register, La Gaceta Oficial. Decrees, and decrees repealing other decrees, take effect when published. The repeal has not been published. Update: 2:15pm, 19 Oct - Repeal published today. UN human rights team in for three-week investigative visit. End update.

No one should need Amnesty International reports to be able to tell that demonstrations continue to be broken up with force. Soldiers and police teargassed and beat demonstrators the day after the supposed "lifting" of the decree, the very day the OAS-mediated dialogue began, in full view of the international press, who reported it. The police gave as the reason for the repression that the demonstrators were "violating the decree" (which, among other things, forbids public gatherings of more than 20 people). They repeated the performance two days later, again widely reported: Riot police shoot tear gas to disperse supporters of ousted Honduras' President Manuel Zelaya during a demonstration outside the hotel where representatives of Zelaya and Honduras' interim government are meeting in Tegucigalpa, Friday, Oct. 9, 2009. [AP caption]

2. To their credit, the leading presidential candidates — Porfirio Lobo of the National Party and Elvin Santos of the Liberal Party — have contributed responsibly to resolving the crisis.

As the front-runner in the elections, Lobo has the most to lose from their being discredited, so he did push back strongly against Micheletti's constitution-suspending decree -- once the international response made clear how lethal a threat it posed to the elections' acceptance.

But I'm unaware of anything Santos has done to help resolve the crisis. Instead, on several occasions he's actively and violently intensified it: During his visit to the national university in August, when students jeered the candidate for his support of the coup, Santos' bodyguards fired their weapons and pistol-whipped one student; the charming episode was YouTubed. A month later, his goons responded to demonstrators heckling a Santos campaign appearance in Choluteca by attacking the protesters with machetes; this too was captured on video, broadcast on Ch. 36. As a result of his role in tearing apart the Liberal party, Santos was only polling a few points ahead of independent candidate Carlos Reyes in a late August national survey by COIMER&OP (solid polling with other newsworthy results that is still unreported by any English-language news outlet other than the site that first made it available).

3. [Acting U.S. Ambassador to the OAS] Amselem, a holdover from the George W. Bush Administration, called Zelaya's surprise reappearance in Tegucigalpa "irresponsible and foolish."

That he did, but he's not a 'holdover' in the sense of being a political appointee, and State Dept. spokesman Philip Crowley defended his comments as consistent with the administration's policy. While Amselem has throughout his career demonstrated the kind of energetic support of right-wing governments characteristic of Republican administrations, he's a career State functionary. He is serving as the acting OAS representative without Senate confirmation, at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. If Sec. Clinton wanted another State employee acting in that position until the new administration's pick is confirmed, it would happen. Speaking of that pick: Despite the declared intention to re-engage with the hemisphere, and despite the emergence in June of a crisis on which it was purportedly determined to work with and through the OAS, the Obama administration didn't even nominate its own OAS representative until September 15; I wouldn't bet on her being confirmed until sometime next year.

4. After setting up in the Brazilian embassy last month, [Zelaya] claimed Israeli mercenaries were trying to zap him and his entourage with high-frequency radiation.

The source of this assertion, Frances Robles' Sept. 24 Miami Herald article, was a hit piece intended to paint Zelaya as unhinged. The writer didn't repeat the president's actual words, just luridly characterized them -- and has yet to produce the quotes to back it up. But the damage is done; one commenter after another repeats her unsupported attribution as gospel.

Moreover, the smear is repeated without even a nod to the context in which Zelaya spoke to Robles: a day after the coup regime had laid military siege to the Brazilian embassy. The regime cut the power, water, and phone service to the whole neighborhood. They filled the street with tear gas (some of which infiltrated the embassy). They set off the LRAD sonic cannon from the street outside, well within the 300 feet within which the manufacturer warns the device causes damage. The weapon is designed to flush out buildings and disperse crowds; use against people who are trapped in the path of the highly focused, 150-dB directed sound is torture. Soldiers ordered out the residents of houses on all sides of the embassy and occupied the buildings. The next day the regime inserted at least one phone-jamming device into the embassy and directed others at it from outside. Pro-coup Honduran media reported that the sonic cannon was supplied by the Israelis.

A day after the Robles hit piece appeared, the regime subjected the embassy to chemical attacks and renewed the sonic blasting with the LRAD. More than a third of the 60 people inside the embassy had serious symptoms ranging from nosebleeds to respiratory irritation to vomiting blood, while medical personnel were prevented from entering the embassy for hours. That Manuel Zelaya -- what a craaazy guy.

The main point of Padgett's article is that the State Department is considering supporting and recognizing the November elections even if Zelaya is not restored to office. Evidence for this includes a revealing email from "a high-level official in the U.S. OAS delegation" who is not Amselem, as well as signals new and old in State briefings that the U.S. is counting on the elections as an escape route.

What puts Padgett on a slightly higher level than the run of U.S. reporters and commenters is that he does some actual reporting, treats anti-coup sources seriously, manages to write about Zelaya's presence in the Brazilian embassy without using the phrase 'holed up', and -- most significantly -- recognizes that the rest of the world isn't blind and that their opinion counts for something:
if Micheletti doesn't yield the presidency back to Zelaya by Nov. 29, whoever wins that day is likely to be a global pariah — a fact that perhaps the U.S. needs to come to terms with.


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At 7:01 PM, October 17, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another excellent post, Nell. US reporting is truly awful.


At 9:57 PM, October 17, 2009, Anonymous Ovid said...

It sure looks like there is indeed a tacit plan to let Zelaya reclaim office at the 11th hour. The al jazeera video made it sound like he would accept that to show that coups are no longer tolerated too.

That's hard for me to see.

At 1:51 PM, October 19, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Radio Globo is back on the air! The UN human rights delegation is on the ground. The military is reportedly backing Zelaya's version of the agreement.

For the first time in many weeks, one hears a sense of hope in the voices of hosts and guests on Radio Globo. Surely the coup will not yield so easily. But one can breathe, if only a little.

--Charles of Mercury Rising

At 11:24 PM, October 19, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And it looks as if the talks are off. The negotiators were p--sed.


At 8:24 AM, October 20, 2009, Anonymous Ovid said...

Micheletti and company seem to have decided to be obstructive until the last minute before the elections, at which point they'll "surrender" and let Zelaya take a victory lap and give a speech about how coups are no longer tolerated


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