Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix IV Segment 16/23
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The quality of coverage also differed radically. Thus a rock-throwing incident in Nicaragua on January 23 received front-page coverage in the Washington Post and prominent attention elsewhere, with the Times warning that the incident would "strengthen the argument" of the Reagan administration that Nicaragua is not complying with the peace plan. Similarly, extensive coverage was given to the January 16 detention of four members of the Nicaraguan opposition who had met with contras and the January 19 arrest of five opposition members, all released unharmed after several hours of questioning (in the Times, nineteen paragraphs and a headline across the page in the first case, and a front-page above-the-fold story in the second); months later, Roy Gutman, referring to this incident, observed in the Washington Post that "No government ordinarily allows a legal political party to negotiate a joint program with armed forces seeking the overthrow of that government." In contrast, the murder in Honduras of a human rights leader and a Christian Democratic Party leader on January 15 received 160 words in an unheadlined story, and no conclusions were drawn about compliance with the Accord. The disruption of a "Mothers of Political Prisoners" gathering by civilian Sandinista supporters warranted a major Times story and photo on January 23; the disruption of a "Mothers of Political Prisoners and the Disappeared" march by the Salvadoran riot police on December 21 was ignored.96 The examples are typical, and again readily explained in terms of a propaganda model.

The readers of the Toronto Globe and Mail and the wire services could learn that in a one-week period in January, while compliance with the Accord was front-page news, ten people were found murdered in El Salvador in death squad style with signs of torture, including two women who had been hanged from a tree by their hair with their breasts cut off and their faces painted red. Later in the month, there were more killings, with the tortured bodies found in a traditional death squad dump. Foreign diplomats and Church leaders blamed the Salvadoran armed forces. Auxiliary Archbishop Rosa Chávez stated in his February 7 homily that "According to information compiled by our office [Tutela Legal], the captors [of two tortured and murdered laborers] were men in plain clothes and uniformed soldiers of the 1st Artillery Brigade's counter-insurgency section" (an elite U.S.-trained unit).97 The readers of the New York Times were spared these facts, just as the Times had no interest in a televised mass on January 3 in which Archbishop Rivera y Damas once again denounced "the practice of torture used against many Salvadorans by the death squads," stating that bishops in several provinces reported increased death squad murders and calling for an end to assassinations and torture.98

A few weeks later, as Duarte's security services and their associates extended their grim work while the Times obligingly looked the other way, the House of Representatives passed a resolution commending El Salvador's progress towards democracy. The proposed resolution stated that El Salvador has achieved a system "which respects human liberties," but liberal representative Ted Weiss of New York succeeded in having it changed to say only that the country has "sought to" establish such a system. "Give them a little credit for trying, Ted," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante Fascell. In December, as the terror was mounting after the signing of the Esquipulas Accord, the House of Representatives had overwhelmingly passed an amendment specifying a long list of "Actions Which Should Be Undertaken" to satisfy the high ideals of Congress -- in Nicaragua. Representative Weiss sought to introduce a few changes, applying the conditions to "all countries in Central America" instead of only Nicaragua. This proposal was rejected by a large majority. Congress and the media share the same agenda.99

In subsequent months, state terror in El Salvador escalated, rarely reported. James LeMoyne was much exercised over guerrilla terror, devoting stories to the topic with such headlines as "Salvador Rebels Kill 12 in Raid on Town," "Guerrillas in Salvador Step Up Pre-election Terrorism," and "Salvador Rebels Target Civilians, Killing 3," repeatedly referring to the same alleged atrocities.100 Terror by U.S. clients does not pass entirely unnoticed. Thus, he concludes one story with the words: "Such rebel violence has been reflected in a rise in political killings," its source unnamed. In a "review of the week" column, he describes a guerrilla shift to "terrorist tactics," then adds that "increasingly, the guerrillas and their sympathizers are also the targets of violence." Another report focuses on guerrilla terror, noting also that "the army appears to be returning to killing suspected leftists as an answer to sharply stepped-up guerrilla assassinations, bombings and other attacks."101 The message is that the U.S.-installed government may not be perfect, but its deficiencies are a response to guerrilla atrocities. Readers familiar with such journalistic practice can try to read between the lines, and may surmise that the government is perhaps not judiciously observing its commitment to human rights under the accords. But they will learn little about the matter from this source. They may to turn to the foreign press to read, in the mainstream, that Europeans "want to see progress towards civilised politics not just in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but also in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which lamentably continue to be bywords for barbarity."102

We should again observe that these devices to conceal atrocities provide a shield behind which the state terrorists can continue their work. The contribution of disciplined journalists to murder, torture, and general misery is not small.

The media campaign, only barely sampled here,103 succeeded in demolishing what remained of the Esquipulas Accord by January. With the CIVS abolished under U.S. pressure, Ortega agreed to go far beyond the terms of the forgotten accords, abandoning the simultaneity condition entirely. The "genius of the Arias plan," the Times editors explained, "is that it provides a means for Nicaragua to accommodate to neighbors without appearing to truckle to Washington," not the simultaneity requirement that was recognized to be the "genius" of the plan when it was signed.104 They may well be correct about what Arias had in mind, to judge by the references and quotes; but if so, that would simply show that he had no more interest in the implementation of the Esquipulas Accord than the New York Times.

Recognizing that the powerful make the rules, Ortega agreed that Nicaragua alone would enact the provisions of the accords, even calling for an international commission, including members of both U.S. political parties, to monitor Nicaragua's adherence alone.105 The media reported that Ortega now promises to "comply with" the accords -- that is, the version fashioned in Washington, which bears little resemblance to the text -- while warning that his promises plainly cannot be trusted. No one else's promises were relevant, now that the accords had been consigned to oblivion. Citing unnamed "officials," LeMoyne portrayed Nicaragua as the villain of the piece, "the country most widely accused of bad faith," now "pressed to the wall by the other four Central American leaders" to implement the peace treaty. Readers could again turn to the foreign press to read that "Nicaragua has done more to comply with the terms of the Central American peace plan than any of the other five signatories, with the exception of Costa Rica," the judgment of the editors of the Globe and Mail, plainly accurate, but hidden by the U.S. media barrage with only an occasional glimpse of the unacceptable facts.106

Even critics were swept up in the propaganda campaign. Thus a Nation editorial (January 30) stated that Ortega "has made significant concessions to the Central American peace plan," namely, by agreeing to abandon it in conformity to U.S. demands. The terror states were now exempt, along with their sponsor.

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96 Ibid., and FAIR Questionnaire submitted to Times editors on their Central America coverage, Jan. 23, 1988. Gutman, WP, Aug. 7, 1988.

97 AP, Feb. 2, 3; Globe and Mail, Feb. 3, 1988; Amnesty International, El Salvador: `Death Squads' -- a Government Strategy (October 1988). See my article in Z Magazine, Jan. 1988, for further details.

98 Douglas Farah, WP, Jan. 4; COHA Washington Report on the Hemisphere, Jan. 20, 1988.

99 AP, Feb. 26, 23, 1988; Congressional Record, House, Dec. 8, 1987, H11037f. See Envío, Jan. 1988, for a reaction by Jesuits in Nicaragua.

100 Feb. 18; March 20; April 20, 1988. On the credibility of LeMoyne's reports of guerrilla atrocities, see appendix V, section 4.

101 March 20; March 20, "Review of the Week"; Feb. 29, 1988. LeMoyne's successor Lindsey Gruson follows basically the same script. Thus a dispatch with the headline "Rebel Attacks on the Rise in Salvador" begins with ten paragraphs on the violence of the "Marxists committed to redistributing the nation's wealth and overthrowing the American-backed government," including attacks on army headquarters, ambushing police, and two car bombs in a wealthy neighborhood; and in paragraph eleven, we learn that human rights monitors report "a sharp increase in terrorism and massacres attributed to right-wing death squads, the army and the guerrillas" (NYT, Oct. 20, 1988).

102 Editorial, Observer (London), Feb. 7, 1988.

103 For details, see my articles in Z Magazine, January, March 1988.

104 Editorial, NYT, Jan. 31.

105 LeMoyne, NYT, Jan. 22, 1988.

106 LeMoyne, NYT, Jan. 18; Globe and Mail, Feb. 5, 1988.