Saturday, March 1, 2008

What Will They Say? (Part 3)

As argued in Part Two, using the word "dictator" to describe world leaders is not just technical, but also emotionally personal and subjective, and sufficient enough to harm a journalist's independence and responsibility to the public if perceived this way. Nevertheless, reporters are human too, and our personal judgments always seem to find their way into our work and behavior.

With this in mind, what will the public say about Fidel Castro when he finally kicks the bucket? Will they call him President? Dictator? Will descriptions be objective, or subjective? Curious myself, I decided to so a small study and make a prediction.

As some may or may not know, Haji Muhammad Suharto of Indonesia died last month after being gravely ill for weeks. Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 consecutive years before his forced resignation in 1998. His legacy is a controversial one; some accusing him of vast human rights violations (including genocide), others overlooking his mistakes for other social gains. (Sound familiar?) Reviewing how American newspapers described Suharto (as "president" or "dictator") during events of his official resignation and after his death, I believe, may provide a glimpse into how the media will eventually describe Fidel Castro near the end of his life.

I also took the time to review how American newspapers have described Fidel Castro during two past events: his transfer of power to his brother in July 31, 2006 and his recent resignation on February 19th. I used the NewsBank database for this small study, whose results were very interesting and, given the different historical and political backgrounds, open to interpretation.


The news of Indonesian President Suharto's resignation in May 1998 reached the headlines of many American newspapers. This was mainly due to the fact that Indonesia was hit with "its worst economic crisis in decades" and a student-led movement to oust Suharto soon erupted into looting and massive riots. The origins of the immediate outrage were reported: "... sharp increases in the prices of basic goods and services last week have further impoverished ordinary Indonesians. Anger spilled over into the streets Tuesday after police shot and killed six anti-government protesters at a student rally." As the riots spread, and the death toll continued to rise, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright intervened to demand Suharto's resignation. He did the next day. Months later it was estimated that over a 1000 people died in the riots in Jakarta and other cities.

I found 335 American newspaper articles reporting Suharto's resignation, including reports of the following two days. Of those reports, only 6% included the word "dictator," while 96% used "president." A closer look showed that some reports referred to Suharto's "autocratic rule" or "ironclad rule."

All of this changed this year when Suharto became gravely ill and died in January. American newspapers paid very little attention this time with only 58 articles found on the day of his death and the following two days. But, somehow reporters felt far more inclined to describe Suharto as a "dictator" and less a "president." Of those 58 articles, 79% used "president" (drop from 96% in 1998) and 59% used "dictator" (rise from 6% in 1998). I also found that more articles used both "president" AND "dictator" during this time (40%, a rise from 6% in 1998).

I believe this change in attitude in the newspapers was due to the revelations that immediately occurred after President Suharto resigned, and the growing public awareness (and extensive documentation) concerning his abuse of power before his final days. After his death, it seems that the media expressed their well-developed outrage over the 32-year governance of President Suharto, as reflected in the increased use of "dictator."


It was just one year after his resignation that Time magazine published a special 4-month investigative report ("Suharto Inc.") revealing the vast corruption behind Suharto's presidency. According to the report:

"Suharto laid the foundation for the family fortune by establishing the intricate nationwide system of patronage that kept him in power for 32 years. His children, in turn, parlayed their ties to the President into the role of middlemen for government purchases and sales of oil products, plastics, arms, airplane parts and petrochemicals. They held monopolies on the distribution and import of major commodities. They obtained low-interest loans by colluding with or even strong-arming bankers, who were often afraid to ask for repayment."

Time magazine was sued by Suharto afterwards. Despite two lower courts ruling in favor of Time, a final Supreme Court decision in Indonesia sided with Suharto. Time has appealed and stands by their story. But, the Time report was just the beginning. Charges of corruption haunted Suharto while on his deathbed and now haunt his legacy, and family.

The day after Suharto's death, William Pesek of Bloomberg News pointed out how international organizations had already pointed to the culture of corruption left behind by President Suharto, and how that vast corruption revealed itself in the collapse of 1998.

"It's the great Suharto paradox. During his tenure, per- capita income in the fourth-most-populous nation quadrupled and the ratio of those living in absolute poverty declined from more than three people in five to about one in 10 by 1998. Yet Indonesia's development model proved to be a house of cards that crumbled in a matter of months. Perhaps the bigger question is how a nation as resource-rich as Indonesia [with oil, gas, timber] could do so little. This is among Suharto's biggest failings."

Yet, Pesek noticed how Suharto still had strong support among those who felt he helped Indonesia in the economic long-run.

"The nostalgia some feel for the Suharto days is among the most baffling [and maddening] elements of the post-Suharto era. It's all about the 'cult of GDP' that dominates much of Asia. 'Indonesia's political and intellectual poverty, the repressive security apparatus... these were accepted because, economically, Suharto was a hero,' Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in his 2005 book 'In the Time of Madness.' 'However unhappy Indonesians were with their leader, there was no doubt that, under him, most of them had become better off.'"

"It's a phenomenon that political scientists refer to as 'performance legitimacy.' Suharto knew that if Indonesians felt better off, they would tolerate a stunted society."


Unlike Pesek at Bloomberg, the Economist magazine had very tough words for Suharto after his death. They called him "a despot, a cold-war monster cosseted by the West because his most plausible opponents were communists. Behind his pudgily smooth, benign-looking face lay ruthless cruelty. The slaughter as he consolidated his power in the mid-1960s cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Tens of thousands were locked up for years without charge. After the invasion of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian occupation led to the deaths of perhaps one-third of its people. Meanwhile, he was robbing his own country blind. Perhaps no leader's family anywhere has ever amassed so much ill-gotten loot. When he was forced to quit at last, the economy was in a tailspin and the stability he had boasted of creating proved an illusion."

And, this seems to be the prevailing attitude about the legacy of President Suharto in the US. Even the US-funded Voice of America reported about how the many victims of Suharto's presidency are trying to reclaim their lives from memories of horrific violence and death. Ever since his resignation, the corrupt and bloody history of Suharto's presidency has been well-documented and implanted into the public consciousness. But, for Americans there might be an additional sense of outrage, as it all occurred with approval by the Western powers, especially the US government.


The National Security Archives has been leading the way in providing declassified material concerning US support of the genocide against East Timor. Their Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project is extensive, and include materials that have served in Truth and Reconciliation programs, resulting in calls for US reparations. The documents reveal a long strategic US relationship of confidence and support with President Suharto, even overlooking a massacre of almost one million alleged communists once Suharto took power.

Concerning the East Timor genocide, a final Truth and Reconciliation commission report found that U.S. "political and military support were fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation" of East Timor from 1975 to 1999. In addition to that, Suharto had a long list of other atrocities and countless victims, whose families, some of which extend into the West, now demand justice. Human Rights Watch believes it is still an opportune time. Thus, it is understandable that some may designate Suharto a "dictator" or a "mass murderer." As Chris Kline, a Western relative of one of Suharto's victims, states:

"I have visited many countries as a foreign correspondent for CNN and Fox, but all my life I have been excluded from Indonesia, because of Suharto. Now that he is gone, I will be able to embrace my own heritage at last. And the man who overthrew my grandfather will take his place beside Pol Pot, Pinochet, Milosevic, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mao and all the other great murderers of their own people."


So what will they say about Fidel? There are very interesting similarities between the two autocrats and one wonders if American newspapers will have the same reaction of outrage upon Fidel Castro's passing. Reviewing how Fidel Castro was described in the papers during two important past events (his transfer of power in 2006, and resignation last month), I found that American newspapers were pretty consistent in using "dictator." In both two events (from over 400 articles), around 30% used "dictator." The use of both "dictator AND president" was between 21% (in 2006) and 26% (in 2008). But, "president" was most used at 50% (in 2006) and 73% (in 2008). In this case, the increased use of "president" in 2008 may indicate the formality of Fidel resigning from a political position, which was also seen in Suharto's case.

Obviously, the political context surrounding Cuba and Indonesia clouds any confidence in making a prediction based on this small study, but I will have a crack at it. I think that unless serious allegations and revelations arise against Fidel Castro between now and his eventual passing there is no indication that news reports will describe him any different than they have so far. The controversial history of Fidel Castro and his government has been covered and examined extensively already, and distributed widely. But, I also believe that media reports may react with some additional outrage at another leader who's legacy and abuse of power may be a very controversial one. Yet, if international political matters remain no different than today, then that outrage may be tempered.

In the end, it may all depend on how informed and consciously aware we are of Cuba's history.

[Photo above of Indonesians celebrating in the news of Suharto's resignation in 1998.]

[Part 1]

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