Ten days ago Guatemalan courts convicted former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, to 80 years in prison for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Though the ruling has just been overturned on technical grounds, it was the first time that a country has been able to use its own criminal courts to try a former head of state for genocide, arguably making it one of the most important court decisions in decades. Despite the significance of the ruling, not just for what it represents for the more than 200,000 victims of the genocide and their families, but also for human rights worldwide, the mass media in the U.S. has mostly ignored the U.S. role in contributing to and supporting the genocide.
The New York Times provided a couple of exceptions in the last week. Its “Room for Debate,” feature, which is regularly published online but not in the print edition, and allows perspectives from a broader political spectrum than is normally permitted in news articles or even the op-ed page, published a range of opinions on the extent of U.S. support and complicity for the Ríos Montt regime. And last week the New York Times published an exceptional print article about the role of the U.S. government in Guatemala, Reagan’s financial and fervent military support for Ríos Montt’s bloody dictatorship, and how this aspect of the genocide had been conspicuously absent during the trial against Ríos Montt.
Amazingly, the Washington Post chose not to report at all on the historic ruling in their print edition following the day of the ruling. Although stories on corruption scandals in India, a detained youth activist in Egypt, and voting in Pakistan did make the international section of the print edition of that day’s Washington Post, the Post found no space to print this story. Two days after the conviction was announced (and after it made headlines around the world), and buried deep in the digest section of Sunday’s print international section were a total of 73 words dedicated to what it said human rights activists called “a historic moment” in Guatemala.
This dearth of words from the Washington Post shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, not reporting or investigating news about massacres and genocide in Guatemala when it had the opportunity to do so is consistent with the Post’s reporting on the country throughout the 1980s when the U.S. government supported death squads in the countryside killing anyone and everyone that they could. Yes, the Post reported on Guatemala, and on guerrillas, and occasionally it even paid some lip-service to the idea that some people claimed that the government and army, not the guerrillas, were behind the vast majority of deaths in the country. But, despite reliable indications and reports that government-led massacres and even a genocide was in fact underway in Guatemala, for example from this October, 1982 episode of PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report and this one from November of 1983, the Post neglected the opportunity to dig up the truth during this period. The New York Times, it should be pointed out, also mostly ignored the genocide when it was taking place. This was the pre-internet era, so if these newspapers did not report on massacres, for the United States public and policy-makers, they weren’t part of the news. (However, investigative reporter Allan Nairn did get opinion pieces into the NYT and Washington Post some time after the worst massacres had occurred.)
Thirty years later human rights defenders, victims of the genocide, dedicated investigative reporters, activists, lawyers, historians, and more, have done that work, showing the world what it takes to win back some justice, and putting themselves on the right side of history. But the Washington Post, in its silence, continues to commit the same mistakes that enabled U.S. military and financial support for genocide in Guatemala or, to draw a more recent parallel, the invasion of Iraq and the deaths of perhaps more than a million people.
The latest news, from a decision made late last night on the ruling is that Guatemala’s top court has annulled the conviction against Ríos Montt. While the trial is expected to backtrack to where it stood on April 19, before again resuming, appeals from the former dictator’s lawyers have consistently stalled the process. If the trial resumes and Ríos Montt is again convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemalan courts, the Washington Post will have a rare second opportunity to offset its most recent silence, and join its peers in reporting on these important current events and the history of U.S.-Guatemalan relations.