Honduras: unfolding crisis for media
The troubles for media in the Central American state may only be beginning, writes ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnès Callamard
03 Aug 09

agnes callamard
The troubles for journalists in the Central American state may only be beginning, writes ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnès Callamard

Honduras has been in the international headlines for over a month now, a level of profile this small Central American country has rarely experienced in the course of its history, at least since the return to civilian rule in the early 1980s. “We are on trial before the people of the world,” one government official I met during ARTICLE 19’s recent mission there told me. “But this is not Rwanda, this is not Sudan…”

Indeed it is not, but there are early warning signs of further crises in Honduras, following the 28 June coup which ousted Elected President Zelaya and put in place an interim government headed by Roberto Micheletti.

The country was ruled by a military dictatorship until the early 1980s. Since the return to civilian rule, Honduras has been characterised by endemic social and criminal violence, paramilitary groups, and criminal gangs. Access to weapons is generalised, and so is corruption at virtually all levels of government.

Add to these the 28 June coup, the increasing tensions and confrontations between those supporting it and those opposing it, and a biased and manipulated media environment coupled with censorship and self-censorship: all the ingredients for an explosive outcome.

The coup, supported by the parliament, the military, the Catholic and other churches, and the economic and political elites more generally, has been justified on the grounds that Zelaya was attempting to secure a second presidential term — a possibility ruled out by the Honduran constitution — through various unconstitutional and abusive means. President Zelaya’s supporters are calling for their president and democracy to be re-instated, and are getting organised around a loose but increasingly vocal and present “resistance movement”.

A media blackout was imposed for several days throughout the country immediately after 28 June, and access to international channels CNN and Telesul (a Venezuelan channel) was shut down. Journalists working for Canal 10 — the government broadcaster — were all fired. Since then, censorship enforced by both state and non-state actors, as well as self-censorship, have prevailed. All the journalists we interviewed spoke of intimidation and threats. Many testimonies received by ARTICLE 19 told of the pressure coming from the armed forces to moderate the opinions expressed on air and to avoid using the term “coup”.

Pressure on journalists and media outlets is particularly strong in rural areas. For instance, ARTICLE 19 received testimony from a journalist from El Bonito, a community located 8 hours from Tegucilgapa, the capital city, who has been in hiding for several weeks now in the capital, following very serious threats from the armed forces.

But the media itself has also become a central actor in the unfolding drama. It is polarised, we were told. “If you want impartial information, don’t read or don’t listen to the media,” explained one of our contacts. Others, including journalists themselves, spoke of “media terrorism”.

The majority of media outlets are associated with the pro-coup side, with a handful backing the resistance movement. In particular, Radio Globo has become the voice of the resistance movement. Dozens of people have been gathered day and night outside the broadcaster’s office since 24 July, to prevent any possible take-over by the army.

Only a couple of media outlets — including El Tiempo and Channel 13 — have not taken a stand on either side and are perceived as being impartial. In response, their advertisers threatened to withdraw their commercial contracts unless they took a stand against Zelaya. In one case, advertisements went down from approximately 10 to three minutes during prime time. There is a positive side though: Circulations have gone up: “Good journalism does pay off,” one journalist told us.

In many ways, the scenario unfolding in Honduras is reminiscent of others in the region, with the media playing a central role in the political conflict between a leftist project (that of Chavez or Morales) or a social conservative one (that of Mexico or Argentina). In Honduras, the former has found in Zelaya an unexpected hero, but seemingly little coherence as yet. The latter is fighting for the preservation of Honduras’s constitutional purity, and its associated consensual yet corrupt political and economic system.

So what will be the sparks that will further ignite the crisis? A demonstration getting out of hand; the arrest of political leaders, or of Zelaya himself; another unexplained killing? There are many possibilities. What is certain though is that the genie that was left out of its bottle on 28 June will not be returned to it easily.

Read Olga Iris Mencia Barcenas’s exclusive blog from Honduras here