|President Pepe Lobo, "What's the worry? It's for democracy!"|
President Lobo is pushing hard for a 'gag' law that would seriously curtail freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Honduras, in emulation of what Hugo Chávez accomplished in Venezuela. Under this proposed gag law, media sources speaking critically of the government could face fines in the millions and even loss of their license under what the press is calling confiscatory measures. The proposed law is said to call for a censure committee and to also give the President discretionary rights to regulate all media, including deciding what is information and what is not, who is granted frequencies and who is not, as well as the final discretion to revoke or confiscate media as he sees fit. While the law will apply to online news sources, it's unclear whether it could be also applied to personal blogs.
While Lobo claims there is no intent to previously censor any news or confiscate private property, fines for violating the new rules range from 3% to 5% of gross annual income! The penalty for repeat violations can mean license revocation. Self-censorship among reporters is already a huge problem in Honduras where dozens of radio, television, and print journalists have been murdered in the past 10 years and where lucrative government advertising contracts can make or break a radio or television station and likely has a major effect on the slant given to the news.
image: La Prensa, Honduras
The law is touted as a means to "democratize" radio and television communications. In Honduras as in most countries in the world, television and radio licenses are limited to those who have the money to pay for them. The stated goal of the law to provide 33% of frequencies to community groups, such as indigenous groups, women, and other social groups, 33% to the private sector and 34% to the public (government) sector. The government already has two full time television propaganda stations and says that they need many more. The law will also affect print media as well as digital news. Television commercials for the government are already as frequent as Tigo (cell phone company) commercials on some channels.
The draft law cites several articles of the constitution, including the right of the government to intervene in the name of public and social interests. Unfortunately, it also quotes article 76 which gives the "right to honor" which has been interpreted in the penal code (yes, penal code, not civil laws) to mean that anything said or published which offends the honor of anyone is a crime, even if it is true. Truth is not a defense to the calumnia laws. You can see how this could hamstring any discussion of corrupt or inept officials. It already does. Those who dare to publicly denounce corruption rarely ever mention any names.
Another worrisome area of potential abuse is the government's claimed responsibility to protect national security, public order, health, and public morals. 'National security' has been used to withhold important information from the public regarding police purification, so news sources which have leaked the shockingly disappointing facts and figures could be heavily fined for doing so under the new law.
image: El Heraldo, Honduras
Many organizations within and outside the country have spoken out against this proposal very strongly, including the US government and the President of Honduras Supreme Court. [all links are to articles in Spanish unless otherwise noted] SIP (Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa) lamented the political and disciplinary character of the reform, and pointed out that several countries, such as Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, have been using the 'democratization' of media as justification to impose control over independent media and impose state monopolies. Yesterday, a UN representative declared that the proposed law violates freedom of expression and even the OAS has expressed its concerns.
Just like former President Zelaya [see this and this in English for a few examples], Lobo has been complaining and pushing against the media for years. [See this article in English] He gets particularly angry about articles about crime, whether they are written within or from outside the country. Lobo says this law will not be stopped.
Will this unconstitutional law pass congress?
According to one congressman, bribes of L.500,000 are being paid to suplantes (substitute congressmen who can vote in the absence of their congressman) and L.250,000 to the opposition congressmen, apparently for being absent the day of the vote.
If true, where does that money come from? Honduras was and still is drowning in debt. For the past several months, numerous sectors of government employees have gone without pay. Government debts, including payments to municipalities, were going unpaid. Government contractors have shut down their work for lack of payment. Providers of even such things as insulin and dialysis equipment refused to provide any more services until they were paid. Virtually nothing is being done to actually, you know, improve infrastructure or provide any of those services that those tens of thousands of government workers are paid to provide. So if the government had no money, where is this bribe money coming from?
Could it be from the recent Honduran US$500 million 7.5% bond issue? I thought it was bad enough that 1) the funds received would be used to pay current expenses, 2) that the interest rate was a ridiculous 7.5%, and 3) that future governments will be paying this debt for 2012-2013 expenses with devalued lempiras for the next 20 years. But to think that they would use this bond money to bribe congressmen to pass an unconstitutional law curtailing freedom of the press? Incredible. Another explanation could be, as many including congressmen claim, that the congress is controlled by narco money.
Well, now there you have it! There I go again. I can't help myself. Exactly why I worry that 'they' might want to kick me out of the country.