“There have been deaths in the country, there are members of the military involved in extrajudicial executions, there is a culture of murdering people.” This is what Wendy Funes, winner of the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship for Journalism, tells Index about the dangers of reporting critically of Honduras’ authorities.
Such risks don’t deter Funes, whose online news outlet, Reporteros de Investigacion, reported on 8 June 2018 that members of a Honduran military unit allegedly engaged in inappropriate behaviour towards young female students. The unit was conducting seminars in schools on the dangers of drugs and collecting the personal information of pupils without parental consent. In at least one case, a member of the unit was texting sexually harassing messages to who he thought was a pupil, but was actually the pupil’s mother.
Two days later, a fake article claiming that the military programme was pushing gangs out of schools was being shared on WhatsApp groups. The piece used the Reportero de Investigacion logo.
“I didn’t think this type of story would receive such a response — which is one of the mildest that has ever happened to me — because I know the capacity in which the military operates,” Funes says. “The murder of journalists is a big problem — murdered women have been found in the cars of military officials and staff — and impunity only makes these killings easier to carry out.”
Funes says journalists with a high profile and who are seen to be an “inconvenience” are most at risk, especially “young people who adhere to certain stereotypes of rebelliousness”. Reporteros de Investigacion draws a large readership in what is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.
Soon after the exposé on the military, a failed cyber attack was made on the publication’s website. “They weren’t able to compromise our digital security,” Funes says. She reported the attack to the Mecanismos de Protección Ciudadana (Citizen Protection Mechanisms), a government body tasked with protecting fundamental rights, including protection for journalists and human rights defenders. “Progress has been very slow and it hasn’t received very much attention,” she says. “The state has begun an investigation and has named a prosecutor, Luani Alvarado, but she is one of the prosecutors that I have been denouncing because she has repeatedly refused to grant me information.”
Funes was offered a police escort, but being aware of abuses by the police and military — not least those cases exposed in her own publication — she refused.
Such a pressurised media environment exacerbates the problem of self-censorship among Honduras’ journalists. Funes puts the blame on fear. “I lived it when I was working for the monopoly media corporations; I self-censored, as did a lot of my colleagues, in order to be able to keep working in these companies,” she says, explaining that the reasons differ from region to region. “Journalists in the Atlantic coast self-censor for the fear of organised crime, and in other places they self-censor when there are protests, because of the risk or danger this might put them in.”
The solution, she says, has very little to do with the actions of journalists and a lot to do with changing the environment in which they work. “When there is democratisation, when the owners of the media respect the thoughts and views of the journalist and when journalists come out of journalism school better prepared for these situations, then we will defeat self-censorship,” she says. “If the structure does not change, we can not talk about concrete things.”
Funes wants to put an end to censorship overall, which she says has let her country down so many times. Working with her in this aim, Index helped her secure the funding to provide legal support for Reporteros de Investigacion. “We needed a legal society that is able to accept funds and other means of sustainability, which cost money, and that’s where Index came in, helping us raise the seed capital,” she says. The publication is now partnered with Investigaciones y Comunicaciones (Indica) and can engage in commercial activities.
“It has been an emotional moment,” Funes says. “Our plan is to grow at a slow but firm pace, and our dream to found the first centre for investigative journalism in Honduras.” The next step is to register with the chamber of commerce in Tegucigalpa.
The publication relies on the work of volunteers and so being financially self-sustainable is a key aim. “Once we can achieve that this, more doors will open — in addition to the ones Index has already opened for us,” Funes says.
Index has also helped Funes develop a strategic plan and other tools for institutional development. Funes and her team are currently working on at least eight investigations, including challenging Honduras’ white-collar crime culture, which has “caused so many problems for the most vulnerable in society”.
Working to sustain both herself and her newspaper takes much physical and emotional effort, which can be very difficult as her days are always full. In addition to her reporting, Funes is also working towards a master’s degree in criminology and has enrolled in an investigative journalism course. “Contact with Index has helped me to be self-critical and improve every day,” Funes says. “My country deserves it, which is why I educate myself. And I hope all these sacrifices have a reward.”
“Given the criminal culture that exists in Honduras, we have been made invisible and have been ignored, but the recognition from Index and international support networks has been a motivator and helped us rediscover the value of doing journalism that is ethical, honest and rigorous.”