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April 2001


by Ronnie Lovler

How have television and the new technologies affected human rights and coverage of human rights issues? Has coverage of human rights improved?


Many of us recall the turbulence of the 1970s and 1980s in Central and South America and the human rights abuses that occurred then. Those were not yet the days of consistently live television. Was it difficult to get out information about the violations that occurred? Definitely. Was it initially believed? Often there was a great deal of skepticism about what had occurred.

One good example is the massacre of civilians in the town of El Mozote in El Salvador in 1981 during that countryâs civil war. American-trained soldiers in a rampage killed nearly 800 people. It took 11 years for that story to be confirmed ÷ when forensic archeologists went to the site and unearthed hundreds of skeletons.

The guerrilla Farabundo Mart’ National Liberation Front first reported the El Mozote massacre on its clandestine Radio Venceremos. When that happened, hardly anyone believed that such a thing had happened. The guerrillas took the New York Timesâ Ray Bonner and the Washington Postâs Alma Guillermo Prieto to the site, independent of each other. Both Bonner and Guillermo Prieto saw the remains of dozens of bodies and spoke to a female survivor who had hidden in a tree.

Both paid a professional price for their reporting ÷ their objectivity was questioned and the Reagan administration and the political right attacked them as leftist sympathizers and guerrilla supporters. Bonner eventually left the Times; Guillermo Prieto told the Columbia Journalism Review at the time that she, Bonner and many international journalists in El Salvador had the ãbesieged feeling of always having it be our word against the State Department.ä

In the case of El Mozote, Bonner and Guillermo Prieto represented two prestigious newspapers but there was no live television reporting from the scene of the crime: No correspondents live on the scene. No cameras to instantly flash scenes of slaughter, violence and bloodshed to global audiences. No instant analysis. No Internet to electronically get the message out.

Fast forward to today and to events like those which recently occurred in Kosovo. Every day, on CNN and other cable and broadcast networks, we watched the refugees pour across the border into Albania or Macedonia. We watched mass graves unearthed. A global audience peeked in as funerals were held for those slaughtered.

Man stopping tanks in China
AP Photo of man stopping tanks by Jeff Widner, 6-5-89

Or go back 10 years÷to the Chinese crackdown on prodemocracy activists in Tiananmen Square and the military rampage against demonstrators in Burma, now Myanmar. The brutality exercised by the regimes in both countries was similar. But the Chinese crackdown was broadcast live around the world. People knew what was happening. The Burma bloodshed went almost unnoticed because there was nobody there to see it ÷ except the victims.

The electronic media÷specifically television and its now ever-present satellite technologies÷make coverage of human rights violations infinitely easier and facilitate getting the word out about abuses and their victims. The presence of television or other electronic media does not mean that abuses do not occur or stop those so inclined from carrying them out. But they can no longer get away with murder for years at a time.

Using the Internet To Get the Facts Out

Of course, the Internet also comes into play. If the Gulf War was the war in which live television coverage made its mark, the crisis in Kosovo may well become known as the first Internet war. In Kosovo, the Internet helped refugees and human rights groups in innovative ways.

For example, one group of Albanians from Ulcinj in Montenegro and Pec in Kosovo, set up a Web site to help reunite separated Kosovar families. A French computer programmer living in England set up a similar site. A U.S. technology company, Anonymizer, has helped guarantee privacy with encrypting programs to protect users and those listed in databases from being targeted by death squads or those involved in ethnic cleansing.

But where the Kosovo crisis truly proved to be groundbreaking was in grassroots Internet action. Take the example of independent Serbian radio station B92. The government seized its transmitters when NATO started bombing Serbia. The station got news out via the Internet until government authorities took over both the radio station and OpenNet, Serbiaâs first independent Internet service provider. On the day police shut down B92 and OpenNet, a journalist sent an urgent email to OpenNet founder Drazen Pantic, who was outside Serbia on another project. Pantic then sent email to Robert Leavitt, associate director of New York Universityâs Center for War, Peace and the News Media. Leavitt in turn emailed 500 key journalism contacts. Reuters was the first to get the news out on the wires. The entire process, from that first email to Pantic until journalists were advised of what occurred took little more than 30 minutes.

Personal accounts of tragedies posted on many Web sites also gave the war more of a human face. The American Refugee Committee, working in Macedonia to provide medical care to refugees, got more online responses ÷ and more donations ÷ more rapidly than for any other crisis itâs been involved with. However, while the new technologies have proven useful in disseminating information about human rights abuses and efforts to help those affected, it also has some built in drawbacks.

In some Latin American countries, neoNazi groups use the Internet to maintain contact with each other. In Argentina, they maintain a Web site called Orgullo Skinhead. Argentinaâs Pagina 12 also reported the existence of another cybernetic neoNazi site, True Peace, that provides links to likeminded Internet sites, such as DieLuftwaffe and Asesino Che Guevera. On the other side of the political equation, Guerrilla Net links surfers with the Web pages of such groups as Tupac Amaru of Peru and the Zapatista National Liberation Front in Mexico.

I began working as a journalist when typewriters were the tools of the trade, and I still have the Olivetti portable typewriter I carried when I first went to Central America. There are times when I bemoan the computer age and the technological advances that bring so many rapid changes to our profession. On the other hand, these same technologies make it possible to gather this type of  information.

Finally, remember that new technologies also can threaten individual rights, like the right to privacy. One such instance recently affected a teacher at a Georgia elementary school. A Georgia newspaper and television station recently collaborated on an expose about the number of people with criminal records who worked in the county school system. The teacher was forced to resign after the press revealed his misdemeanor conviction for cocaine possession 13 years earlier. Such a culling of hundreds of thousands of records would have been impossible without the new computer technologies.

Ronnie Lovler is a program manager for Weather Channel Latin America. She began her career at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico, covered the Nicaragua and El Salvador ãwar yearsä in the 1980s for CBS News. She has worked as a CNN correspondent and bureau chief in Managua, Nicaragua, and Santiago, Chile, and as an Atlanta-based CNN producer.

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