The Grave Risks For Journalists And Those Who Stand For Freedom Of Expression In Honduras
Standing up for freedom of expression is, without a doubt, one of the most uncomfortable experiences in life; and in a country like Honduras, it means living with anxiety, insecurity, suspicion, distrust, demands, warnings, and threats. It also means having to come to grips with the idea of death.
by Ismael Moreno Coto
How can opinions be freely expressed, news and information given, and analysis shared in a country where the very institutions of the state have been distorted? How can freedom of expression be exercised in a country where all of the rules have been broken and we have been left with violence and death as the only criteria and parameters to guide ourselves by?
In the last three years, 25 journalists and social communicators have been murdered in Honduras. The names and further information about them are included at the end of this report. Why were they murdered? What is the common pattern in these crimes? It is not an ideological or political pattern, because the dead include people who were part of the resistance to the coup, but also those who worked for media outlets that supported the coup. Some had not sided with any of the various ideological currents of our very polarized political sectors. What is the pattern, then, of so much death?
It is true that, in the murders of journalists and social communicators, express political or ideological patterns do not emerge as the major pattern. However, the murders do show a clear pattern; they have all occurred in a place where institutional state structure has been deformed and adulterated, where the government has stopped being an expression of the rule of law and has chosen instead to represent and channel the interests and decisions of those who believe in rule by the strongest.
And this is the most terrible thing about these deaths: in Honduras today, a person who works in front of a microphone (or a computer or a camera) only has to publish or disseminate some news that negatively affects the interests a powerful person with money and influence in the community, municipality, or province for the life of that news reporter to be endangered. The risk increases when these journalists and social communicators touch on unresolved controversial issues, such as the defense of -- or demand for -- land, natural resources, health, or education; or when they talk about having a tax policy where everyone contributes to the government according to their profits, income, and property; or about the need for impartiality in the law; or simply the need for a justice system that works; or the fact that people are demanding democratization, access to public information, and access to the media.
The institutions of the state have been so crushed that it is easy to manipulate them in favor of groups that already have power, money, and other privileges. The Honduran state is being used as an instrument to strengthen the impunity of the most powerful. If social communicators in a municipality decide to publish news that impacts the interests of a person or a family with power and money, that person or family can easily hire a couple of hit men to eliminate whoever had the temerity to mention them on the radio or in the local media. The government knows this is happening, but its institutions and officials have become a shield that protects the strong and makes sure they are immune to prosecution so they can act with complete impunity.
The situation is the most serious at the level of a community or a municipality, because those who benefit from "the law of the strongest" there know that the state will not touch them no matter what. People with power and money have protection from policemen, prosecutors, and judges. Public officials enjoy the relationship with these "strong" groups because of the economic benefits and perks they receive, which end up being much higher than the wages they earn. And those who exercise "the law of the strongest" know for sure they can act with complete impunity because the most a state will ever do is arrest and try someone who has executed a crime; it will never touch those who actually gave the orders, because those people are protected by the state. In some cases, a powerful few actually take the place of the state itself in certain localities.
In the system of "the law of the strongest," power may be wielded by a policeman, a lumber magnate, an agro-industrialist, a congressman, a mayor, an owner of a national media outlet, a cattle rancher, a businessman, or a drug trafficker. It doesn't matter what the person's affiliation is. They are all protected under the shadow of illegality, which knows how to move down the halls of legality and official institutions. Most of the powerful few have tourist visas to come in and out of the United States. Not a few of them are prominent businessmen or politicians. Some are invited on an ongoing basis to celebrate Independence Day in the residency of the American ambassador in Tegucigalpa.
The primary protectors and promoters of impunity in the Honduran state are: 1) the current justice system, from the local judges to the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice; 2) the Public Ministry, headed by the Attorney General; 3) the Ministry of Security; particularly the Police, both preventative and investigative; and 4) the Armed Forces. Many people who operate with impunity have some protection in one or all of these institutions, and these institutions look to the National Congress, starting with its president, to find a kind of political backing where everything is negotiated, calculated, and decided upon to ensure different levels of impunity to protect people with power and money.
In this highly precarious context and environment of arbitrary actions by government institutions, the death of journalists and social communicators will continue to be cloaked in impunity, because impunity is part and parcel of a society like Honduras that props itself up using the law of the strongest. Even today, in the agreements signed after the coup d'état, political matters have been touched on, and politicians have maneuvered so that their conflicts can be played out in the political electoral sphere. But impunity remains intact and it continues to be untouchable, because we are talking about the intimate conspiracy between the state and those who exercise the law of the strongest.
This explains why the work of journalists and social communicators has become the most dangerous of all jobs in Honduras. I want to speak clearly without beating around the bush: the deaths of journalists and social communicators represent the most sophisticated of all political crimes in Honduras today. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Expression and Opinion, Frank La Rue, "in proportion to its population, Honduras has the most alarming violation of the freedom of expression in the world, and is the country in which the most journalists have been killed in the least amount of time."
How can we reach a place where the press is independent and autonomous when so many and diverse powers are pressuring, blackmailing, threatening, and seducing the media and its journalists? How can a journalist act with independence in an environment that conditions his/her salary and job security on loyalty to the interests of the proprietor, particularly in a society like ours where having a stable job is a luxury? How can the media become independent in a society where democratic institutions are subordinated to the arbitrary decisions of those who abide by "the law of the strongest"? How can freedom of expression be defended in a country like Honduras where the biggest violators of this fundamental freedom are the friends and partners of a "democracy" backed by policies and agencies of the United States government?
It is also clear that, in Honduras, no system exists to monitor threats to journalists, and none of the protective measures provided actually guarantee the safety of threatened journalists, a situation aggravated by the weakness of the Honduran state. Drug trafficking and political violence are defining the patterns of violence. And the sectors that are able to intimidate others with their power or to threaten the freedom of expression have at least tacit protection from the government of the United States.
At Radio Progreso, we are committed to building a democratic, inclusive, and participatory society with an institutional structure and functioning that translates into real rule of law. As long as the international community -- and the United States in particular -- channels its support to the current Honduran institutions, such as the Ministry of Security, the Public Ministry, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Armed Forces, impunity will continue to be a macabre expression of the Honduran landscape, and we will continue to see journalists die, as we ask ourselves anxiously when it will be our turn. We need new institutions that grow out of a deep questioning of the current system. The commitment to a new set of institutions and to the rule of law must grow out of a confrontation with those who are operating with impunity in today's institutions, and it can only come from bringing diverse sectors of society together to create a social pact based on basic common agreements. This is the only way we can create conditions that will guarantee freedom of expression.
In Honduras we do not reach for the "maximum," because our entire institutional system is broken, and because the human, social, ethical, political, and institutional fabric of our nation has been torn. In Honduras, the maximum is found by seeking consensus around "minimum" shared agreements. As long as we do not build those minimum shared agreements, freedom of expression will always be a precarious reality. In that struggle, we are on the side of the communities and populations whose voices are seldom heard in the diverse forums and spaces that exist today. We do our work accompanied by the spirit of Monsignor Romero, who told us that "no matter what is happening politically, no matter who has power, the poor are the most important group to keep in mind."
- Women Journalists in the Eye of the Storm - AWID Friday File
- Journalists Murdered in Honduras (following article)
- Commentary by Grahame Russell: HONDURAS: A VIOLENCE, REPRESSION AND IMPUNITY CAPITAL OF THE WORLD (bottom of page)