January 27, 2012

Freedom of the press in Honduras

Honduras President Porfirio Lobo
Honduras President Porfirio Lobo
Photo: El Heraldo, Honduras

The Miami Herald article discussed in Corruption in the upper echelons of the Honduran police is reporting what newspapers in Honduran can only hint at, if they even have the nerve to do that.

While freedom of expression and freedom of the press are enshrined in law and the constitution of Honduras, the reality is different. There is the very real fear of retaliation for what it said or written — about 17 journalists have been murdered in the past couple of years and many more have been threatened or intimidated by police, other government officials, or criminals. It is widely rumored that some journalists simply accept payment for covering/not covering or putting a certain slant on a story and even that one television 'journalist' extorts his potential victims — 'Pay up and we'll leave you alone. Don't pay and we will crucify you with wild claims and made up 'proof'.

Sometimes family politics and financial interests also get in the way of the "whole truth and nothing but the truth". The government of Honduras is one of the biggest advertisers in Honduras. That's right, in addition to their own two dedicated propaganda television channels, the government of Honduras spends millions on paid advertising incessantly telling us on TV, radio, and in print what a good job they are doing, using money that could be better spent actually helping the poor instead of trying to get their party reelected. Less than transparent government officials are often able to successfully confuse or cover up the truth or mislead journalists. Then there is also the possibility of being charged criminally or sued for millions for reporting derogatory stories.

You see, in Honduras, the archaic calumnia law (liable, slander, and insult) provides that anyone who even feels that their honor and dignity was offended can file a criminal complaint. It's called a "crime against honor" and is listed in the penal code in Título III, right after homicide and rape. It can be punishable by 6 months to 3 years in prison, as well as huge monetary damages in a civil lawsuit.

Reminiscent of the feudal era, which still exists to some extent in Honduras, and reflecting Honduras' strong and never ending love of impunity, in the case of "insult", the accused is not even allowed to present the truth as a defense except in the case of public officials. However, proving the truth is next to impossible in a country where "investigations" continue indefinitely and the few A cabinet of goalies - Hondurascases brought to trial rarely result in successful prosecution. Publishing a retraction, even if you have reported the truth, is the only option to avoid criminal prosecution. Even caricatures of public officials can be classified as a crime, though my favorite caricaturist and congressman Dario Banegas certainly pushes that to the limit. [Cartoon entitled a Cabinet of Goalmakers: A grinning President Lobo: I only half close an eye and .... goal! (the soccer balls spell 'corruption').]

Thankfully, this law, like so many laws in Honduras, is mostly ignored. Cases were filed and threats were made several times under the administration of Manuel Zelaya, including his threat to sue Otto Reich, former US Assistant Secretary of State, for Reich's comments made and published in the USA (coincidentally in the Miami Herald) stating that Zelaya was complicit in the Hondutel/Latinode corruption case. Reich's response to Zelaya was more or less "bring it on". In a big show for the Honduran public, the enraged Zelaya even sent high level government officials to the US to see what they could do, which was nothing.

Marcelo ChimirriRepublishing an 'offensive' article that was previously published elsewhere in the world can also result in lawsuits. We saw that in 2007, when Hondutel official and nephew of then president Manuel Zelaya, Marcelo Chimirri (who has since served some time in prison for corruption but is now out), sued two television journalists individually and sued La Prensa and El Heraldo newspapers for L.500 million (US $26 million) for the re-publication of a Mexican article which directly linked Chimirri [photo] to Hondutel corruption and was later reported by CNN. Those cases were thrown out, but it took almost five years for the underlying fraud and bribery to be investigated in Honduras, despite the fact that Latinode officials plead guilty to bribery in US court. Unfortunately, the US public court documents only list the Hondurans who made the deals and received the bribes as "Official A, Official B, and Official C".

Honduran officials still claim to not know who "Official A" is, though it was claimed that he had close connections to Zelaya. I think the case is "still under investigation" in Honduras, which apparently has much higher standards of evidence than the US. < /sarcasm > Chimirri was arrested and taken to jail shortly after the ouster of President Zelaya to the cheers of many. It now appears that other than a few months in jail, during which he was allowed visits from his stylist and masseuse, nothing more will happen to Chimirri related to the specific corruption charges made in the article. He was released on L.4 million personal bond and nobody investigated where that money came from either.

In 2007, when the cases against the media were thrown out, several members of the national congress spoke out saying that freedom of expression is one of the pillars of a democratic society. Several mentioned that the law which makes defamation a criminal offense, as well as the new transparency law, needed to be changed in order to guarantee the citizens the right to be informed. One diputado went so far as to say that "to file a lawsuit against journalists who denounce corruption only reflects the class of functionary who isn't prepared to show his innocence." But more than four years have passed and the big talk was not followed by any action.

Names and photos of police who have been suspended and/or accused of crimes are withheld from the public — who have a real need to know — because, officials say, they could be sued for releasing the information. Police and other government officials, who have no similar qualms about giving out names and allowing photos of alleged criminals before charges have been filed or proven in court, have a whole different attitude about their own. Amazingly, even the Public Prosecutor says that the names and cases have not even been released by police to their office. No investigation, no trial — no need to embarrass or defame anyone.

That brings us full circle to the Miami Herald article. Honduran officials, including those named in the article, curtly dismiss the article, saying that it is unethical, merely rumors, and asking the Herald to provide proof. Since the only ones in a position to provide proof are those devoted to covering up the truth, there is not much chance of that ever happening.

Remember that Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla said back in November 2011 (see Minister Bonilla responds) that he had no knowledge of any investigations against his command officers but that he had requested any investigative files against them from all sources. Apparently, he has not yet received those files or he is covering them up, because he's still not talking and he definitely hasn't said that the files don't exist. Leaks to the media seem to be the only way that the public can get any information.

Despite the many unsolved murders of journalists and many recent charges of attacks and intimidation, rather than addressing those issues, Honduran President Pepe Lobo announced on Wednesday that he would be sending a decree to congress intended to "regulate" the media. He didn't give any details but said that the objective is to guarantee that media divulge information without bias and that no media should be allowed to "defend personal interests". What he meant by that remains to be seen. And it doesn't bode well for freedom of expression if the government is in a position to decide what is biased and what is not. I would like to see the government propaganda channels subjected to the same criteria.

In addition to loads of coverage about the crime situation, criminal police, and lack of investigation and incompetence within the justice system, the media has exposed details of several suspicious government contracts lately as well as cases of laws passed by the congress in which the wording was mysteriously (and illegally) changed prior to being published in La Gaceta. It would be so much 'prettier' if only the media wouldn't talk about such things. In fact, the government is in the process of developing their own media campaign to improve the image of Honduras. Wouldn't a better effort be to improve the reality in the areas of crime and corruption?

Juan Orlando Hernández, President of the Congress seems to have lately put his presidential aspirations above his previous 100% support of every action of Lobo. He says that the President has a right to send a decree to Honduras, but that the congress has a right to not approve it.

On Friday, President Lobo added that the national media should obey "an ethical framework to inform and orient the public opinion in an impartial manner." "If I grab a newspaper, I am assuming that they are telling me the truth. The reader doesn't assume that the owner of a newspaper is the owner of a business that wants to get a [government] contract...." Unlike his previous announcement, this time he said that he would consult with journalists, the Inter American Press Association, and Reporters without Borders.

Honduran journalists have declared themselves "in alert" against any effort to limit their rights under Article 72 of the constitution. Proceso Digital writes that Lobo's reiterated declarations that he will legislate the exercise of the profession of journalism indicates his intolerance for criticism. [Both links in Spanish]

The Inter American Press Association has already announced its concern, citing one of the media's greatest roles as being a watchdog over the powers that be.

Related article:

Andres Oppenheimer: Press censorship on the rise in Latin America
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