Library:A 'Double Standard' in Reporting News From Portugal

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A 'Double Standard' in Reporting News From Portugal was an article written by Dr. Michael Parenti and published in The New York Times on 24 January 1976.


ITHACA, N.Y.—When reporting on Portugal, the United States news media have displayed little of that pluralism and diversity of opinion they deem so essential for Portuguese democracy.

This observation is based on my reading of major newspapers, news magazines, and news agency reports and on television news coverage.

The former pro-socialist government of Gen. Vasco Gonçalves, while antagonistic to the interests of corporate capitalism, was unfairly portrayed in the United States press as antagonistic to democracy.  In contrast, the existing pro-business government of Prime Minister José Pinheiro de Azevedo, with all its repressive policies, is portrayed as democratic.

Portugal under Prime Minister Gonçalves, we were told, suffered from "Red intimidation" and a "Communist-controlled press" (Time magazine).  In truth, the Portuguese enjoyed an uninterrupted freedom of expression.  Numerous conservative newspapers, both Portuguese and foreign, circulated freely throughout the country.

The Socialist Party under Mário Soares (Socialist In Name Only, given its pro-capitalist policies) and other centre-right parties operated without hindrance, carrying on the kind of red-baiting anti-communist campaign that would have won the admiration of any Birchite.

The Roman Catholic Church retained control of the Radio Renascençe station in the north, broadcasting to a far larger audience than did its station in Lisbon, seized by workers.

If political freedom was suppressed anywhere in Portugal, it was in the north, where anti-communist terrorism directed against leftist publications, bookstores, and political offices allowed little room for the pluralism that is purportedly one of the goals of the anti-communists.

Under the Gonçalves government, free health centres were set up for the poor; the unused lands of the rich were turned into agricultural cooperatives; worker and neighbourhood councils were organised to allow for participation in factory and community affairs; the military budget was cut almost in half; health and educational expenditures were nearly doubled; a public housing programme was started and a minimum wage law improved the income of the most-destitute.  Yet little, if any, of this was reported in the United States press.

Instead, the Gonçalves government was characterised as a communist "strong-arm" operation and a "dictatorship of the left" (television network news reports).  The nationalisation of domestic corporations—measures supported by a broad sector of the populace—were portrayed as the work of a conspiratorial clique.  The mobilisation of hitherto powerless peasants and workers, usually done independently of the communists, was treated as evidence of Communist Party manipulation.

When the centrist government under Admiral Azevedo came into office in September, it reversed the socialist policies of the previous regime by encouraging foreign business investments and putting an end to land reform and nationalisation programmes.  

Accordingly, the United States press reversed itself.  The use of force by the Azevedo government to silence dissenting radio stations and drive landless farmers from large estates, and its restoration of military tribunals the kind that had existed under the pre-revolutionary dictatorship for the trials of political prisoners earnt no words of condemnation from United States editorial writers and news commentators.

Government repression was now seen as an attempt "to assert authority and counter demonstrations by the extreme left" (The New York Times).

Suddenly the most important task was to establish "order and discipline in the military and the country as a whole" (The New York Times).  The question of whose order for whose benefit was never joined.

Demonstrations were no longer legitimate forms of dissent but were "leftist agitation" designed to "undermine" authority, "provoke a crisis," and "threaten the government" (The New York Times).  Left parties have been labelled "extremist" while the Socialist Party and the conservative Popular Democrats have been described as "moderates" (Newsweek, Time, The Associated Press, The New York Times, United Press International), who by definition are incapable of immoderation—even when their government commits extreme acts like blowing up radio stations to silence dissent.

After paratroops occupied several military bases, apparently acting on their own, to oppose the dismissal of Gen. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, then head of military security, the centrist government, terming this action a "coup," arrested over a hundred dissenting officers and soldiers, closed all anti-government newspapers and put television and radio stations under government control (except for the church-controlled Renascença station).  The United States press published only the government's version of these events and has had little to say about the suppression of press freedom.

Political opposition is "subversive" or "democratic" and political rule "coercive" or "stabilising" depending on whether it is socialist or pro-Western capitalist.  Such is the double standard of the United States news media.

Michael Parenti, visiting professor of government at Cornell University, spent a month in Portugal last year.