Words matter – particularly the words used by major media to describe contested political events, words that can bias perceptions towards the interests of the powerful. Are those wielding power in Honduras today a "de facto" government, or are they an "interim" or "caretaker" government?
On Sunday, the following instructive exchange took place between senior U.S. officials and reporters in a State Department briefing on the Organization of American States’ response to the coup in Honduras:
QUESTION: Sir, just a follow-up. Can you confirm that the caretaker government has reached out to the OAS and asked to open new negotiations? Does this mean that they’re going to consider letting President Zelaya finish out his term? And what of the reports that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I have seen no reports indicating that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras. In regard to the second, we understand that the caretaker government has – I wouldn’t call it a caretaker government, I would refer to it as the de facto regime –
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: De facto authorities.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: — or authorities – has indicated to the OAS that it would like to begin a process of dialogue.
In today’s press, I checked to see what characterization of the coup regime different outlets were using in their reporting.
A Reuters article this morning (accessed at 9:21am EDT) referred to coup leader Roberto Micheletti as the "caretaker President," and to the "interim government," both of which carry the same connotation as the phrase the senior State Department officials objected to, "caretaker government" – namely, the connotation of a legitimate government which is holding power until some accepted point, such as the next presidential election, or the inauguration of the next president. This, of course, is exactly the impression that the coup leaders in Honduras want to convey. So by using this language in its news reporting, Reuters is taking the side of the coup leaders in their so far unsuccessful efforts to win legitimacy. (The Reuters article was subsequently updated, removing the "caretaker" reference and adding several more "interim" references.)
Recall that the coup was condemned by unanimous resolutions of the OAS and the UN General Assembly, which called for the "immediate and unconditional" restoration of President Zelaya, so in terms of world opinion, the notion that the coup government is somehow legitimate is an extreme outlier.
Similarly, an AP article this morning referred to Micheletti as "interim President," and to the "interim government."
In contrast, the reporting of the New York Times and the Washington Post today was much more consistent with the exemplary remarks of the senior State Department officials. The New York Times article referred to the "de facto government," (it also referred to the "new government.") There was no "interim" or "caretaker" government.
The Washington Post article, over the bylines of Mary Beth Sheridan and Juan Forero, was even more careful. It referred to "coup leaders," the "de facto government," and the "de facto president." There was no "new" or "interim" or "caretaker" government.
If the Washington Post can get it right, so can everyone else.
If you think that Reuters and the AP ought to be at least as scrupulous in not legitimizing the coup government in Honduras as the State Department and the Washington Post, you can write to a Reuters editor here and to an AP editor here.