July 30, 2007

Attack on freedom of expression in Honduras

July 25, 2007,
La Prensa, Honduras

Attack on freedom. That's what the headline said.

Marcelo Chimirri, head of Hondutel, the government-owned telephone company, in an act of governmental intimidation and intolerance, filed a L.500 million defamation lawsuit (US $26.5 million) against La Prensa (San Pedro Sula) and El Heraldo (Tegucigalpa) for the newspapers' reports of the scandals and corruption in Hondutel and, in particular, by Chimirri. The newspapers have been accused of defamation and of being publications with ties to corruption.

The newspapers have been demanding investigation of Chimirri and Hondutel. They say that this action looks to stop the campaign for transparency and rendition of accounts from government agencies.

Photo: Marcelo Chimirri, Director of Hondutel (La Tribuna)

The newspapers have reported stories of what they call "the rottenness of Hondutel." Tráfico gris (grey traffic: illegal phone traffic in which international calls are reported as local, reducing the payment as well as the related income and sales tax for the communication) has been the primary charge, along with tolerance of businesses who operate irregularly, threats against other businesses, apparent electronic erasures ordered by Chimirri to eliminate evidence of corruption, and use of Hondutel personnel and equipment to provide telecommunications to high government officials including Chimirri and President Mel Zelaya.

A week earlier, Charles Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, recommended publicly that U.S. companies not do business with Hondutel until the acts of corruption are "clarified."

Official investigations are ongoing. The Fiscal General, with the support of the National Congress, has requested technical assistance from the U.S. and the International Telecommunications association in Britain because of the technical aspects for which the Fiscalía is not equipped to investigate as well as to provide impartiality and transparency to the investigations.

Over the past year, Chimirri has ordered the closure of over 50 telecommunication businesses that he has accused of tráfico gris. He sometimes personally led the forces (as shown by newspaper photos) of Hondutel employees, fiscalía, and heavily armed military who have invaded the companies, intimidated employees, destroyed property, and confiscated equipment, records, computers, cellphones, and money, including that of customers and employees.

These companies were accused, without benefit of independent investigation or trial, of the very same crime of which Chimirri is now being accused. Only in the case of one company, owned by a high-level government official, was the property returned to the business owner. No reports of trials or opportunities for businesses to defend themselves have appeared.

A complaint has also been filed against Diputado (congressman) Valentín Suárez for insulting and slandering the management of Hondutel by accusing them of irregularities.

Photo: Valentín Suárez, Diputado, Congreso Nacional (La Prensa)

Suárez replied, "What they want is to avoid the investigation of the million dollar fraud against Hondutel. Chimirri himself dismantled 50 local businesses to verify that numbers of operators, suboperators, and Hondutel were making tráfico gris and now there is a great number of citizens who monthly receive adulterated bills with calls to other cities that they haven't made. There are complaints 24 hours per day, 365 days per year regarding the cloning of calls."

Suárez explained that with the billions in "grey calls" that Hondutel manages, health, education, and infrastructure (of Honduras) could be improved if the illegal calls became legal. Ironically, this is the same thing that Chimirri said a few months ago when dismantling private businesses.

Suárez, assuring that he will not retract his denuncias, estimates that 50% of international calls are illegal, affecting income taxes and sales taxes. "Honduras could be losing L.3.6 billion per year (US $190.5 million) and for this, I demand that it be investigated where this fraud is coming from. One thing is certain and that is they are using land lines and mobile numbers owned by Hondutel."

Suárez has also accused Chimirri of pulling his pants down in front of congresswomen.

A denuncia (complaint) has also been filed by Chimirri against the legislator's son, Carlos Suárez, former head of International Management of Hondutel, who was terminated two months ago for irregularities. "We have the case almost ready for abuse of authority, breach of official duties, and fraud. The state has lost L.100 million because of his (Carlos Suárez) inefficiency," said head attorney for Hondutel.

The attorney stated, "La Prensa and El Heraldo have created a campaign of sensationalism to the detriment and deterioration of the nation of Honduras. This campaign has caused a great loss to the state of Honduras and the Honduran public." He added that they have revealed corrupt situations that, according to him, are not true. "Only these two media outlets have campaigned directly against Hondutel and the government of Manuel Zelaya."

By comparison with the media in the U.S., the media of Honduras is very weak. It's not at all unusual for public officials to simply refuse to speak to the media or to provide data for reports or investigations. Reports of corruption are often vague and don't name names. This may be partly because of inability to obtain the underlying facts, but more often it is blamed on political or financial pressure and just plain fear of reprisals up to and including murder.

At this point there is no way for the average citizen to know if Chimirri is corrupt or whether the charges made by Diputado Suárez were a result of retaliation for the firing of his son or whether his son was or was not another corrupto in the swamp of corruption that is Hondutel and the entire government of Honduras. It is entirely possible that this is a battle between three corruptos! May the most powerful corrupto win!

If history is any predictor, we will never know all the facts nor will any of the corruptos ever be held accountable for their actions, because only in the rarest cases are corruptos ever convicted of their crimes and those few are generally lower level government employees. Of 2,000 corruption denuncias, only 11 have resulted in convictions.

One thing that is obvious, though, is that if the media is further intimidated from investigating and reporting charges of corruption, there is no hope for cleaning up the government of Honduras.

Individual citizens will rarely report corruption knowing the danger it may put them in. Even when they do, their complaints must face the hurdle of corruptive influences at every step of the way. Most people will not file complaints because they know that it is a waste of time.

Honduras passed a transparency law eight months ago after pressure from international organizations but has yet to name a committee to administer it. Agencies are required to render accounts to the public. Government employees by law must provide personal financial statements. The simple fact is that these laws are merely window dressing to appease pressures from international aid organizations and are rarely, if ever, enforced.

In more recent news, Roberto Micheletti, president of the National Congress and member of President Zelaya's own liberal party, advised that no one, regardless of their power, can restrict the freedom of expression in this country. Additionally, the InterAmerican Society of Newspapers met in Tegucigalpa and express their concern about the tension between the executive power and the media and the fact that not all newspapers are treated equally.

Other recent threats to freedom of expression in Honduras have been the forced television shows, the threats against Revistazo.com, and President Zelaya's attempt to censor the media.

For more information on the Hondutel/Chimirri situation, in Spanish, see:

La Tribuna, Confrontation: Suárez vs. Chimirri, 7/19/07 - juicy stuff here if you read Spanish
La Tribuna, Suárez: Chimirri is a pig, 07/24/07
La Prensa, Million dollar demand, 7/25/07
La Prensa, Tráfico gris, 7/25/07
La Prensa, Harmful threats, 07/26/07
La Prensa, Tension worries SIP, 07/27/07
La Prensa, Congress promises freedom of the press, 07/27/07
La Tribuna, Suárez will go to court with 80 congressmen, 07/27/07
La Prensa, US and TSC to aid in investigation, 07/28/07

Interesting that liberal La Tribuna had very similar articles as nacionalista La Prensa, but they weren't sued.

Update 07/31/07: What does Chimirri spend his money on? See for yourself in his online photos. Hurry! Look quick before it's gone.


Bonus cartoon translation:

Man: How is the Poverty Reduction Strategy going, comrade? (referring to the World Bank program)

Woman: Right now we're already reducing lunch!

Newer posts Older posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...