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The Emperor's Party Surprise, Gina Bailey

Days of Action -- But for What?, James Compton

Mis-telling the national unity story, Trisha Wilson


The Emperor's Party Surprise

by Gina Bailey
August, 1997

Remember the Peruvian hostage crisis? In Lima, Peru, on the evening of 17 December 1996 -- yes it was less than a year ago -- 14 members of the Peruvian People's Revolution, known as MRTA or Tupac Amaru, took as hostages the 500 guests at a Japanese Embassy birthday party for Emperor Akihito. Within days most hostages were released, with 72 males remaining in the Embassy during four months of fruitless negotiation. Finally, on 22 April 1997, the Peruvian military stormed the Embassy, resulting in the killings of all MRTA members, one hostage and two soldiers.

The crisis was an excellent opportunity for NewsWatch Canada to evaluate mainstream North American news coverage of a high-profile international event. If, as seems to be the case, the purpose of the MRTA hostage-taking was to draw international attention to widespread human-rights abuses and to the growing gap between rich and poor since Fujimori took power in 1990, then the action was a failure. The press blanked out these issues, focusing instead on the MRTA as 'terrorists' and 'Marxist-Leninists' -- the American 'bad boys' since the dissolution of the Soviet Union/evil empire -- but never defining those terms.

The hostage-taking occurred within the context of a virtual news blackout of the oppressive aspects of the Fujimori regime: nearly 1,000 disappearances at the hands of Peruvian security forces; hundreds summarily executed; beatings, near drownings, electric shock and rapes of people detained on military bases; severe conditions in the prison for convicted 'terrorists' at Yanamayo. Instead, the North American press described Peru as a 'democracy' and an 'economic miracle.'

The first part of the study focused on the first ten days of the hostage-taking, since the frames of reporting -- the selection, interpretation and presentation of events -- are usually well established within the first week of an 'act of terrorism.'

The study sample included 38 articles from two Canadian papers, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, and 38 from two American ones, the New York Times and Washington Post, which are perceived as the most prestigious papers in the two countries. Coverage of these four papers was benchmarked against a variety of sources outside the mainstream media that included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, publications from Carleton University's School of International Affairs, Covert Action Quarterly, The U.S. Department of State Human Rights Reports, and many others.

Three of the four papers had correspondents stationed in Lima -- the exception was The Globe and Mail -- and could have been expected to provide a greater range of voices in their news coverage because reporters were on the scene. This was not the case. Official government sources overwhelmed all others in the four newspapers. Canadian papers were similar to American with the obvious exception that the Canadian ones relied more on Canadian government sources while the American papers referenced American government sources more frequently. The American papers did use more non-government 'experts' (in nearly one-third of the stories), but these largely parroted what government sources had already said.

Canadian papers used Peruvian government sources in 34 per cent of their stories, Canadian government sources in 21 per cent, Japanese government in 17 per cent, U.S. government in seven per cent and other governments in eight per cent of the stories. The two American papers used Peruvian government sources in 38 per cent of their stories, U.S. government in 23 per cent, Japanese government in 14 per cent, Canadian government in eight per cent and other government sources in 12 per cent of the stories.

Released hostages were sources in 16 per cent of Canadian stories and 13 per cent of American stories, while MRTA members were sources in nine per cent (three stories) of Canadian and 17 per cent of American stories.

In contrast to the large number of government spokespersons, representatives of human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the Peruvian people themselves, were frozen out of the coverage -- Peruvian people were sources in one Canadian and one American story, while human rights organizations were sources in one Canadian and two American stories. Such overwhelming reliance on official sources in both countries suggests a 'lap-dog' rather than a 'watch-dog' role for the media in international affairs reporting.

How was the hostage taking reported in the two countries? During the initial coverage of the crisis, the Canadian papers used the word 'terrorist' in 20 per cent of their stories and the phrase 'Marxist-Leninist' in 12 per cent. The American papers relied on these derogatory terms more frequently, using 'terrorist' in 33 per cent of stories, and 'Marxist-Leninist' in 35 per cent. 'Marxist-Leninist' was never defined or even explained. Clearly the term was not a descriptive one, but a pejorative one. Both countries shut out alternative interpretations: the phrase 'human rights' appeared in two Canadian and three American stories.

By labeling the MRTA as terrorists, of course, the newspapers closed off any discussion of problems with Peruvian society and economy that the MRTA had claimed -- although not in the media -- were the reason for their actions. If the MRTA had, instead, been labeled as 'social fighters' or even 'freedom fighters,' and if their demands, in which they called Fujimori's tax policies 'burglaries,' had been publicized, then an entirely different message may have been conveyed to North American readers.

Are the MRTA terrorists? According to Amnesty International, 30,000 Peruvians have been murdered or disappeared since 1980. Amnesty estimates that MRTA has been responsible for one per cent of these or 300 murders -- clearly MRTA are not blameless victims. But, says Amnesty International, 45 per cent of the killings were committed by the anti-government 'rebel' group Shining Path, and 53 per cent of the killings -- 16,000 people -- were committed by the Peruvian military. The four papers never applied the word 'terrorist' to the Peruvian military.

In fact the four papers omitted any mention of the training received by Peruvian army officers at the School of the Americas in Georgia, which specializes in training death-squad police and military for Latin American duty. Nor did the press report on allegations of corruption and drug-trafficking by one of Fujimori's closest advisors. And finally, the press omitted all mention of the majority of MRTA demands for the release of hostages that related to economic and social reforms.

Several demands received abundant coverage: release former MRTA members from prison; improve prison conditions. Other demands were not reported: repeal the amnesty law that absolves paramilitary death squads; re-establish union rights; abolish new land law; recognize rural communal lands; modify economic policies.

Those taken hostage were portrayed as just a bunch of people that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What was not mentioned was the role played by these 'unfortunates:' the exploitative investments by Canadian and American businessmen who were in the Embassy; American support for and guidance of Fujimori's 'anti-terrorism terrorism;' U.S. aid to Peru, the largest recipient of such aid in Latin America. The press reported on Japan's investments in Peru, but not the U.S. or Canada's, even though U.S. investment is larger.

Certain omissions bordered on disinformation -- the creation of false facts. The Globe and Mail, for example, reported that the actions of the MRTA were in retaliation for the severing of its drug money by the Peruvian government. The Globe quoted Vladimir Montesinos, head of Peru's intelligence service as its source, and heralded his efforts, but made no mention of Montesinos' alleged connection to the CIA and the U.S. payroll.

The study concludes that there were specific blindspots (patterns of omission) in North American reporting on the Peruvian incident. Frozen out were the voices of the Peruvian people, MRTA, human rights organizations, and women. Frozen out were important issues: organized state-sponsored murder/ terrorism; North American investments in Latin America; human rights issues; the impacts of neo-liberal economic 'reforms.' And, except for consistent differences in the use of terms like 'terrorist,' Canadian news coverage today appears to be more like American coverage than it was ten years ago. Rather than building bridges to world peace, it would seem that North American media are actively acting as roadblocks.

Gina Bailey is a Ph.D. student in the School of Communication


Days of Action -- But for What?

by James Compton
June, 1997

For two days in late October, 1996, downtown Toronto was the site of the Metro Days of Action, one the largest political protests ever launched against a government in Canada. But, despite the overt political challenge the protest posed to the government of Ontario, Toronto's three major daily newspapers portrayed the Days of Action as deviant labour activity and not legitimate political protest.

On October 25, Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) trains and buses stood idle and the city's downtown streets were quiet, compared to the regular hustle and bustle of a fall Friday in Hogtown. That morning, most city transit workers took part in job action to protest the policies of Mike Harris' Conservative government. Teachers, social workers and other provincial and municipal government employees joined the TTC workers in solidarity by taking a day off work.

The next day, October 26, thousands of protesters -- newspaper estimates ranged from 55,000 to more than 100,000 -- marched to the steps of Queen's Park to rally in opposition to the government's neo-conservative plan to slash government spending and social programs, and repeal what the Tories labeled the "pro-labour" legislation passed by the previous New Democratic government.

Similar anti-government protests had been held under the 'Days of Action' banner in Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge and Peterborough. The Toronto demonstration was sponsored jointly by the Labour Council of Metro Toronto and York Region and the Metro Network for Social Justice, which described itself as a broad-based coalition of community, anti-poverty, social action and faith groups.

That the protest represented a wide range of groups, and that similar protests occurred in a number of smaller cities, suggested the Toronto demonstration reflected broad-based opposition to the government's political and economic agenda. But Toronto's big three papers didn't see it that way. An analysis of Metro Days of Action (MDA) coverage by The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, and The Globe and Mail found that the newsworthiness of MDA for these papers lay in its disruption of transit and other government services. The political significance of the demonstrations was covered, but was marginalized by the overwhelming preponderance of stories framed around the immediate negative effects of the protest.

An analysis of all news headlines about the protest in the three papers between October 11 and October 29 indicates that, despite the extensive involvement of social groups, labour was presented as the principal actor in the event. And it was a disruptive actor: 72 per cent of protest actions reported were cast in a negative light. Activities that would curtail public services or inconvenience the public accounted for 51 per cent of protest actions. Some examples: "Organizers aim for disruption" and "Shutdown of Toronto would make history - Labour risks alienating an inconvenienced public." Only one headline involving protest actions suggested the demonstration was going to be, or had been, politically successful.

The fact that labour was the most often identified protest actor by the papers is significant given that MDA was co-sponsored by a coalition of social activists. Yet the papers reduced the variety of participation in MDA down to one participant -- labour. Teachers, artists, religious leaders and the poor made up just over 10 per cent of the total number of protest actors mentioned in the headlines.

What kinds of actions did the papers report? The most-often cited action characterized MDA as disruptive protest (43 per cent of all articles). These actions included such things as shutting down the subway system or potentially violent activity. "The biggest concern," said one Sun article, "is that the protest will shut down the TTC, effectively crippling Metro." As well, 18 per cent of the articles reported actions taken to counter possible disruptions resulting from the protest. These included: a bolstered police contingent in downtown Toronto, and employees sleeping overnight in downtown hotels or in their offices due to fears of traffic chaos.

The second most often cited action in the sample characterized the MDA as a peaceful political protest (39 per cent). However, conflictual actions, such as general disruption and litigation, dominated the coverage in all three papers. Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of all actions in the articles were derogatory. A small portion (three per cent) of actions were neutral toward MDA, while 24 per cent described the protest in a positive light. There were no significant differences between the papers. So, while the protest was described as a peaceful political protest in 39 per cent of the cases the overall tendency of the coverage was negative.

Most of the impacts of MDA (71 per cent) were framed as non-political by the papers. Shutting down the subway was number one for all papers, with one-third of articles (33.8 per cent) describing the shutdown as negative. Many of the articles predicted, wrongly as it turned out, that the transit shut down would lead to traffic chaos. The Star quoted Metro Chairman Alan Tonks as saying the MDA "could paralyze the TTC, shut down Pearson International Airport and virtually cut off the lifeblood to Metro's financial heart." A small fraction of the articles -- less than three per cent -- characterized the TTC shut down as serving a positive political objective.

The overall tenor of opinion and op-ed pieces written about MDA were hostile to the protest, with those opposing the protest outnumbering supportive pieces by a two-to-one margin. Twelve per cent of the opinion pieces were neutral. The most vociferous voices opposed to the protest came from the Sun. Twenty-one of the tabloid's 24 columns condemned the protest. The Star's coverage was much more balanced in comparison. Half of the paper's 12 columns were supportive of the event; one-third of the columns were negative, and two columns were neutral. The columns in The Globe and Mail, like the Sun, were mostly antagonistic toward the demonstration.

Many negative columns described MDA participants -- linking them to the labour movement -- as "thugs," "morons" and "bullies" who were determined to restrict average workers' freedom of movement by picketing TTC facilities. One vitriolic attack came from Sun columnist Bob MacDonald, who linked the protesters actions with the brutal tactics used by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917.

NewsWatch Canada's study concluded that the three newspapers framed MDA as deviant labour activity instead of legitimate political protest. The broad coalition of poverty activists, parents and religious organizations that helped organize the event, and participated in it, was downplayed. It was labour's baby and labour was framed as the deviant other.

James Compton is a Ph.D. student in the School of Communication.


Mis-telling the national unity story

by Trisha Wilson
September, 1997

There is a double standard in the story English-language daily newspapers are telling Canadians about national unity: the problems of anglophone communities in Quebec are exaggerated while the plight of francophone communities outside Quebec is largely ignored.

Given that news media can play an important role in setting a country's agenda -- telling their readers, not what to think, but what to think about, as Bernard Cohen's landmark 1963 study explained -- then the news media are perhaps unwittingly contributing to the national malaise regarding unity. All papers proclaim support for national unity on their editorial pages, yet their unbalanced coverage of francophone and anglophone issues on their news pages perhaps undermines that support.

Coverage of francophone and anglophone education and language rights was studied through a sample of articles from five Canadian daily newspapers -- Halifax Daily News, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Sun, Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail -- for the period January - June 1996. The study was somewhat skewed by the fact that half the articles in the sample came from one paper, the Montreal Gazette, the voice of anglophones in Quebec, but the patterns were similar in other papers.

The findings were that anglophone rights in Quebec were more newsworthy, more extensively explained, and more heavily favoured, than francophone rights outside Quebec. The study also found that anglophone activists were more frequently used as sources than francophone activists. Follow-up interviews with francophone activists confirm the study's statistical findings. Francophone groups struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to get their stories into the media, while marveling at the ease with which Quebec anglophone groups can gain favourable access to major English-language media. Yet francophone communities outside Quebec face major problems. Some examples: in few regions are French-language signs guaranteed by law, and few francophone communities have a right to elect their own school boards.

In the sample of stories studied, linguistic minority rights were defined as relevant to Quebec only; consequently, readers in other regions of Canada could not know about, and would have little understanding of, the francophone minority communities in their own provinces. For example, very few Vancouver Sun articles on minority language rights mention Western Canada and its significant francophone communities at all.

Sources used in these stories were predominately government officials. Quebec government officials were used as sources in two-thirds of the stories in the sample period, but often critically. Quebec language minister Louise Beaudoin was referred to as "the minister responsible for the return of the language cops." Federal government officials were used as sources in about one-third of the stories, usually to symbolize national unity. Quebec federalists were extensively quoted, often being used as supportive evidence for national unity (i.e., not all Quebeckers are separatists). Government officials from other provinces were not quoted, paraphrased, or even mentioned in any stories, contributing to the profound under-reporting of minority language issues in these provinces.

Anglophone activists were used as sources in about 25 per cent of the stories, usually being extensively quoted. Francophone activists were used as sources in only six per cent of stories, and they were never directly quoted -- their opinions and beliefs were paraphrased or merely mentioned.

What was the attitude of the papers to minority-language issues? Nearly 25 per cent of the stories suggested that rights granted to francophones were too generous, while only six per cent suggested that rights granted to anglophones were too generous. And 40 per cent of stories argued that anglophone rights had been violated in Quebec, while only 10 per cent of stories claimed that francophone rights outside Quebec had been violated. Finally, 60 per cent of the articles favoured the anglophone position, while only six per cent favoured the francophone position.

It is possible that French-language newspapers may show a similar bias in support of francophone rights, as English-language papers do for anglophone rights. But that study remains to be done.

Trisha Wilson is an undergraduate student in Communication.

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