Put any spin on it that you want — Honduran President Porfirio Lobo is trying to expropriate a privately owned television channel by presidential decree and is using his political clout to ensure it passes congress, no different than Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
(Note: all of the links are to Spanish-language newspapers or documents, unless otherwise noted.)
Conatel (the Honduran governmental authority over such things) refused to grant Channel 8 to Elías Asfura and his Teleunsa company, not on the basis that he didn't qualify in any way but by saying that use of Channel 8 "would cause interference with Channels 7 and 9". Conatel was led at the time by Rasel Tomé, one of Zelaya's right hand men. Like Chávez with his Channel 8 in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega with his Channel 8 in Nicaragua, former President Zelaya wanted his own propaganda channel, so he took it.
Asfura went to court and won. The court cited Tomé's own statements as proof that the excuse was not valid. Zelaya's government took the case to the appeals court and Asfura won again. Zelaya then took the case to the Supreme Court who again confirmed the verdict in favor of Asfura.The denuncia (complaint) was originally filed in 2006, the first verdict was May 15, 2007, and the final decision by the Supreme Court was May 20, 2008. After two years of court cases, still Conatel refused to turn over the channel and Zelaya kept it until June 28, 2009.
Virtually the same thing happened to Asfura with Channel 12, indicating that politics or something else is going on here that we don't know about. Asfura's company Eldi applied for Channel 12, met all the legal requirements, and again Conatel refused to turn over the channel. Instead Conatel gave the channel to Televisora de Honduras, a Rosenthal company and strong Zelaya supporter, who applied for it after two successful court verdicts had already ordered Conatel to turn over the channel to Eldi. After years of court cases, Channel 12 was finally turned over to Asfura in 2009. Both of these cases were included in the US State Department's 2008 Human Rights report (English).
Tomé was charged criminally for defying the court orders in 2008 and then violated another court order while he was hiding out in the Brazilian Embassy with Mel Zelaya. His cases have yet to be adjudicated although he has proposed that the cases should be dismissed under the 2010 amnesty decree, which was denied. He acts as a frequent spokesperson for the Resistance and Mel Zelaya and travels back and forth to the Dominican Republic freely. (Photo: Rasel Tomé in his campesino disguise which he wore to protests. He frequently talked with foreign reporters of the plight of the poor, pretending to be one.)
One of the first things that President Roberto Micheletti promised after June 28 was to return Channel 8 to its lawful owner. However, because of the political crisis, Micheletti asked and Asfura agreed to lease the channel to the government for a symbolic fee, one lempira per month for seven months. In the same document, it was agreed that the government would obtain another channel, which they did and they were later granted Channel 20 by Conatel.
Now Lobo says that Asfura can have a different channel and if he doesn't like it, he should take the matter to court and the government will abide by the decision. A prospective investor in Honduras might ask, how many times does someone have to take something to court to get a decision to stick in Honduras?
President Lobo has made some arrogant comments, such as, "Channel 8 belongs to the people, period." and "....the poor state has to submit to the appetite of some who can't be filled", referring to the fact that Teleunsa already has two channels. Lobo made several misleading statements designed to rile up the population which probably doesn't know the history of the situation or that the government has been granted another channel.
He and his people disingenuously do not tell the public that the government has legal access to Channel 20. He implies that Asfura is unreasonable by not accepting a different channel, when he himself is not willing to accept another channel. The President admits pressuring the court and the President of the Supreme Court on "repeated occasions". He publicly denigrates the courts (like Zelaya did) by accusing the judges of overstepping their bounds and vaguely implies that corruption was involved in their decision. Lobo also offered to purchase the channel from Asfura, a clear indication that he recognizes Asfura's legal right. But the sound bites of the day from all of his minions are that they are merely "protecting the rights of the people".
Just like Mel Zelaya, Lobo appears to think it is within his right, in the name of the people, to ignore court decisions with which he doesn't agree. Various Honduran judges have been accused in the past of corruption or being unduly influenced by politics, but the proper way to address that is legally, not by picking and choosing which court orders will be ignored.
As many have asked over the past few days, what happens when the government decides it wants, needs, or is entitled to another channel, or a hotel, or a farm, or an oil company? And what happens when those decisions are based, not on the true needs of the state and the laws, but on politics or the whims of one man? What happens when those of one political persuasion are denied access to the airways in favor of friends? The answer to all of those questions is: Venezuela. Who protects the rule of law if court decisions can be ignored or overruled by the president?
The President of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández, tried to diminish the situation by saying that they are merely trying to resolve an old problem, that the President and Asfura should come to an accord, but that if Asfura feels he has been affected, he should take the matter to court [again], and the Congress would accept that decision. All that put together proves, in his mind, that obviously Honduras honors the rule of law.
This isn't the first time that the president and/or congress has put pressure on the courts or simply ignored their decisions. Shades of Mel Zelaya.... The president's surprise decree suspiciously came up for discussion after a lengthy session when most of the congressmen had already left. At least one congressman has claimed that there was not a quorum present. Though it was reported that the Nacionalista party voted in favor with 64 votes, some Nacionalistas were absent and some Nacionalista congressmen say they are against the decree.
They are in good company, joined in condemning the action as illegal and unconstitutional by the National Corruption Agency, Association of Media Communications, Honduras' Association of Journalists, Association of Judges and Magistrates of Honduras, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Cortés, Association of Private Businesses, the National Association of Industries, the Human Rights Commissioner, Unión Cívica Democrática, congressmen from the other political parties, and political analysts.
This is second case of expropriation of private property by Lobo's government, in violation of Article 105 of the constitution. Several thousand acres of a private producing palm oil plantation have been expropriated by the government against the wishes of the corporation who owns it. It's also not the first time that Lobo has put pressure on the courts to reverse decisions or used his clout in the Nacionalista party to force questionable actions by the congress. Hondurans are seeing the same disrespect for the rule of law and separation of powers of the state that we saw under Manuel Zelaya.
One of the goals of this government is to attract new business to Honduras. The complete and continuing lack of judicial security in Honduras is going to be a huge stumbling block to potential investors when an arbitrary — and most say illegal — presidential decree can overturn a supreme court decision.
Reconsideration of the decree will be discussed further in Congress on Tuesday. There is still time to do the lawful thing.
Update: Tuesday's verdict —Honduras Congress votes to overrule Supreme Court decision
Related offsite articles:
Statement from the Office of the President: Gobierno aclara que no existe ninguna expropiación de Teleunsa (Governement clarfies that there is no expropriation of Teleunsa)
Statement from Pro-Justicia de Honduras: Leguleyadas del Ejecutivo y Canal 8
Marco Cáceres' opinion piece, A President is not a monarch (in English), does not refer to current President Lobo, but the similarities are striking.
Eloy Page's blog article, Hay si! Qué Macho!!
Ricardo Trotti's blog article, Canal 8: torpeza y ridiculez