The normally placid Central American republic of Honduras has been the focus of domestic and international political turmoil for months, and the Honduran media have found themselves caught, in the Spanish expression, entre la espada y la pared (between the sword and the wall).
The “sword” and the “wall” are the supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya on the one hand and the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, which deposed him, on the other.
The world’s news media suddenly became focused on Honduras on June 28 when the military, serving a warrant issued by a civilian judge, arrested Zelaya in his pajamas and hustled him off to Costa Rica. It was not a classic Latin American coup d’etat, because the civilian authorities retained power. The country’s National Assembly and Supreme Court, including members of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, accused Zelaya of trying to amend the 1982 constitution to remain in office beyond his single four-year term, which would have expired in January.
Zelaya, a populist and ally of Venezuela’s firebrand Marxist President Hugo Chavez, became a cause célèbre for the Latin American left, while the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States pressured the interim government of Micheletti, also of the Liberal Party, to reinstate him.
Zelaya, meanwhile, sneaked back into Honduras in September and holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, from where he denounced Micheletti as a “dictator” and urged his followers to boycott the scheduled Nov. 29 presidential, congressional and municipal elections. He has since urged the world community not to recognize the winner of that election, Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the rival National Party.
The ire of international journalism organizations, including the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists, also turned on the Micheletti government when it imposed a news blackout, shut down pro-Zelaya media, ordered the arrests of journalists and allegedly harassed others.
Even before Zelaya’s overthrow, his brand of populism had alienated him from the rank and file of his own party, and he had adopted a heavy-handed approach toward the privately owned television stations that opposed his drift to the left. In 2005, emulating what Chavez had done in Venezuela, Zelaya issued an executive decree mandating that the private stations carry 2½ hours a day of talk shows hosted by pro-Zelaya journalists who interviewed pro-Zelaya guests. Zelaya justified the decree in the interest of balance. He also expropriated Channel 8, turning it into a government mouthpiece. (It continued to do that under Micheletti, who made no move to return it to its owner as of late December, despite a judge’s order to do so.)
What proved Zelaya’s undoing was his attempt to hold a referendum on June 28 on whether to call a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The National Assembly rejected the idea. Zelaya moved ahead with the referendum anyway, and the Supreme Court ruled the move unconstitutional. Zelaya was still attempting to proceed when the armed forces arrested him.
DO UNTO OTHERS
The Micheletti government rescinded the decree mandating pro-Zelaya programming. Then, on Sept. 28, adopting the philosophy of “do unto others as others did unto you,” Micheletti issued his own decree closing the nettlesome Canal 36 cable TV channel and Radio Globo for “threatening peace and order.”
“There was absolutely no freedom of expression in the country,” charged Henry Jacomen, who has been a reporter with Radio Globo for one year. “The news media are not allowed to criticize.”
Jacomen said the station’s director, David Romero, fled through a window as armed troops stormed the station’s office. Jacomen said no one was arrested, but the troops confiscated the station’s equipment “as evidence.”
He said the equipment was brought back and the station allowed to return to the air on Oct. 22 after it agreed to certain “conditions,” chiefly that it tone down its criticism of the interim government. The station employs 10 journalists and has correspondents throughout the country, according to Jacomen.
Esdras Amado López, the leading on-air personality and minority partner of Canal 36, refused to agree to self-censorship, and the station remains off the air. Viewers turning to Channel 36 see this message: “Interfieren señal de Canal 36 para evitar que informemos.” (“They are interfering with the signal of Canal 36 to prevent us from providing information.”)
The “Resistance,” as Zelaya’s supporters call themselves, began communicating their ideas in the form of graffiti, spray-painted on hundreds of street corners around the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
Then it began a series of physical attacks against privately owned broadcast media, apparently because they urged voters to turn out for the Nov. 29 elections, placing them at odds with Zelaya’s plea for a boycott.
Two nights before the election, a grenade was tossed over a wall of the heavily guarded Radio América in Tegucigalpa. The explosion blew out a plate-glass window and damaged the air-conditioning unit but caused no casualties.
“This is the sixth time we’ve been attacked,” Canadian-born general manager Chris Mueller said the next day. “I don’t mean to sound blasé about it, but we’ve gotten used to it. If somebody wants to kill us, they can do it. We see it as a terror campaign to keep people from voting. They want to hit the big media companies to make people think it’s scary to vote. So we’ve downplayed our own attacks to avoid giving the people who attacked us what they want.”
The attack on Radio América also went unreported by the capital’s two daily newspapers, La Tribuna and El Heraldo, both owned by conservative, wealthy families that supported the coup.
Mueller explained that his station had suffered two grenade attacks, two drive-by shootings and two Molotov cocktail attacks. In addition, he said, two transmitter sites were vandalized, and armed men assaulted another and attempted to set it on fire. That same day, July 3, one of Radio América’s correspondents, Gabriel Fino Noriega, was murdered, “but we do not have proof it was linked to the political crisis, just the coincidence that it happened at the same time.”
The IAPA demanded that the government investigate Fino Noriega’s murder.
Mueller said his station was not being singled out.
“Last week it was Channel 10, before that, HRN (Honduras Radio Nacional), our competition. It was our turn,” he said.
He added that El Heraldo was targeted by a grenade attack in August. Besides the grenade attack on Channel 10 (Televicentro), Mueller said it was once attacked by a mob and had been the target of two or three mass demonstrations by the Resistance.
He explained that Radio América, owned by Audio Video, is one of two major radio chains in Honduras. HRN, owned by Emisoras Unidas, is the larger with 10 stations; Audio Video has eight.
The intimidation apparently failed, as voter turnout was above 60 percent, compared with 55 percent in 2005. Lobo won the presidency in a landslide and immediately pleaded for domestic reconciliation and international recognition. Zelaya, meanwhile, announced he would seek asylum in neighboring Nicaragua, because even after the expiration of his constitutional term, he faces several criminal charges.
REFLECTIONS OF REALITY
The Honduran media are largely a reflection of the country’s long-standing socioeconomic reality of a small, wealthy oligarchy that controls the government, the two main parties, banking, retailing, agriculture and, of course, the means of mass communication. These media owners are a peculiar mix of old, landed Hispanic families, Jews and Palestinians.
Illiteracy prevented newspapers from proliferating. Literacy is officially 80 percent, meaning adults over the age of 15 who can read and write, but functional literacy is considered much lower. Besides La Tribuna and El Heraldo in the capital, El Tiempo and La Prensa are published in the larger city of San Pedro Sula. All have tabloid formats.
Former President Carlos Flores, a Liberal, owns La Tribuna, although he does not appear on the masthead. His father, Oscar A. Flores, who founded the paper in 1976, still does. Oscar Flores married into the Facussé family, Palestinian immigrants who amassed a prodigious fortune in hotels and other businesses.
The Larach family owns both El Heraldo and La Prensa. Jorge J. Larach founded El Heraldo in 1979; his son, Jorge Canahuati Larach, has run it since 1985.
Circulation figures are unreliable in a country where most newspapers are sold at kiosks or by hawkers who dart among cars at major intersections during rush hour, but La Prensa is generally believed to sell the most copies nationwide.
Unlike the plight of U.S. dailies, Honduran dailies are plump with display and classified advertising. La Tribuna averages 132 pages daily; El Tiempo, 96; and El Heraldo, 80.
The Rosenthals, a Jewish family, own both El Tiempo and Canal 11 television. Carlos Rosenthal, a 1993 business graduate of the University of Massachusetts, is publisher of El Tiempo, while his brother, César, is general manager of Canal 11, Canal 12 and Cable Color. A third brother, Yani Rosenthal, served as Zelaya’s chief of staff but resigned to unsuccessfully seek the Liberal Party presidential nomination. Ironically, he also was an ally of Micheletti.
The Rosenthals are the only prominent media owners who do not predictably support the Micheletti government. Carlos and César filed a complaint with the IAPA immediately after the coup that authorities had suspended the broadcasts of the three stations for 36 hours and that police in San Pedro Sula had blocked distribution of El Tiempo and threatened or harassed members of its news staff.
The broadcast media are by far the most influential in Honduras. There are eight over-the-air VHF television stations, divided between Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, most with news operations; the government still controls Channel 8. There are at least seven cable channels, including Canal 36.
Rafael Ferrari, best known as the owner of the Olimpia soccer team, owns Televicentro (Channels 3, 5, 7 and 24) and has a stake in Channel 10. Ferrari, an astute businessman, is generally supportive of the Micheletti government but not to the extent of members of the traditional oligarchy, said Ramón Benitez, a reporter for Canal 39 (Dianavisión), an evangelical station with a modest news operation that also tries to steer a middle course through Honduras’ turbulent political waters.
“He was pretty neutral because the Resistance was throwing bombs and breaking windows,” said Benitez, who provided an unusually candid and objective assessment of the pro- and anti-Zelaya adherents. He conceded that Honduras’ grinding poverty (it has the fourth lowest per-capita income in Latin America) fueled Zelaya’s populist movement, and he predicted Zelaya’s forces would have won had the referendum on a constituent assembly been held.
“I don’t support the current system,” Benitez said. “There’s too much poverty. The hospitals don’t operate well. The people see all this luxury and they don’t like it. Both parties are controlled by businessmen. That needs to change. If not, what could happen is something like what happened in Nicaragua. But how are you going to transform a country like this just by taking money from the rich to give to the poor? It’s silly.”
He said Zelaya’s actions were in fact unconstitutional, and he expressed little sympathy for Canal 36 and Radio Globo.
“You should have heard the things they said, the language they used,” Benitez said. “They didn’t carry news. They just carried one line in favor of (Hugo Chavez). They had links to Cuba. Chavez provided funding.”
Mueller had a similar assessment of Canal 36.
“There’s a difference between being critical of the government and lying,” he said. “We’ve been critical of the government. We’re known as very independent. They don’t touch us.”
He accused Canal 36 of carrying a false news report that almost created a run on a bank, and he said the station would attempt to blackmail businessmen into advertising “or they would bad-mouth those businesses.”
In fact, journalists demanding bribes to spike negative news has been a tawdry practice in Honduras for decades.
As for Radio Globo, Mueller said, “Most of their programming is fine, but they can be pretty incendiary.”
Radio Globo pressed the limits of its “conditions” on election night when it carried a live interview with Zelaya from the Brazilian Embassy, in which the deposed president denounced the election as illegitimate. The Rosenthals’ El Tiempo was the only daily that reported on Zelaya’s interview.
SAME GOES FOR THE REGION … AND THE THIRD WORLD
The Honduran situation is far from unique in Latin America, or elsewhere in the Third World, where even democratically elected presidents employ legal means such as tax audits, labor regulations, defamation suits, accusations of incitement and broadcast regulation laws to coerce critical and even neutral, independent media. When legal means fail, governments, opposition groups or organized crime groups resort to physical threats.
“I cannot speak for the other media companies,” Mueller said, “but my staff and my family suffered telephone threats, and my main news director suffered two armed attacks which were accompanied by warnings to be careful with the editorial line.
“None of these attacks changed our position,” he added. “They did, however, affect our working habits. We removed all identifying logos from our vehicle fleet, we stopped using company shirts, at times we were forced to cover Resistance rallies from a safer distance, and our staff were more careful about who was around them at any given time.”
As of late 2009, authorities were investigating the murder in Tegucigalpa of the son of an anti-Zelaya journalist to determine whether he was targeted because of his father or was just another victim of the gang violence plaguing Honduras, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
On Dec. 17, Edwin Rolando Canaca, 22, son of Edwin Canaca, press spokesman for the Institute for Military Welfare, was in a taxi when he was riddled with four bullets by two men on a motorcycle; the taxi driver was also killed.
Honduras, a Virginia-sized republic of 7.8 million people, is one of 15 Latin American countries where the press falls into the New York-based Freedom House’s gray area of “partly free” in its annual rating of world press freedom. Only three — Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay — are rated as “free,” while Cuba and Venezuela are rated “not free.”
Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator in the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists, acknowledged that the Honduran media have been buffeted by both sides, and he lamented that the Honduran people themselves are ultimately paying the price.
“It’s clear that the disruption of the constitutional order after Zelaya was ousted created a lot of problems for every aspect of Honduran life, including the damage to the press freedom climate, first because the Micheletti government created an information vacuum in the very first hours after the coup; there was a blackout,” Lauría said. “International news outlets were disrupted and broadcast outlets loyal to the Zelaya government were closed and some journalists were arrested. There was a lot going on that could not reach the Hondurans and the international community.
“Since then, at the time of the elections, those elements critical of the Micheletti government were targeted by the administration. Stations were taken off the air, and some journalists were harassed by the police or soldiers. At the same time, some of the mainstream media, which were sympathetic to the Micheletti government, said they were threatened and beaten by Zelaya militants. This climate is very tense, and the media have very severe restrictions in which to operate.”
Lauría, a veteran Argentine journalist who joined CPJ in 2002, explained that Zelaya issued a communiqué accusing media magnates Flores, Ferrari and Larach of being among the “masterminds” of the coup. The accusation has not been corroborated by the Organization of American States or other independent sources.
Besides lamenting the climate of intimidation, Lauría also faulted the mainstream media for their lack of objectivity and for suppressing news unfavorable to the government.
“It’s not a press freedom issue itself, but some of the mainstream media, the newspapers and TV stations, were not only sympathetic to the Micheletti government, but they were ignoring what was happening,” he said. “By ignoring this coverage, these media do not fulfill their social responsibility, and this has affected the press freedom environment.”
The Resistance does publish a monthly newspaper called El Libertador (The Liberator), but it is no more objective than the mainstream papers. It routinely refers to Micheletti as “the dictator.”
Benitez had suggested that his evangelical station could serve as a model for objectivity, ethics and propriety. He said his station practices “interpretative journalism, with some investigations. Some of our programs are critical of journalists. When someone uses profanity, we cut them off. Our listeners have told us that they like our style of journalism because we’re not vulgar.”
“Journalism shouldn’t take sides,” he added. “It should be concerned with the public welfare.”
Lauria said newly elected President Lobo, who at press time was to take office Jan. 27, has not indicated whether he will rescind Micheletti’s decree closing Canal 36 and generally respect press freedom.
“What we would like to see is a climate in which the media are free to report the news without fear of reprisal,” he said.
“It is critical at this time for the Honduran people to be informed about what’s going on in their country.”
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a member of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee. He has authored numerous articles and book chapters on the Latin American media and is the author of a reference book on Latin America.