More than two weeks after a military coup ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a superficial calm has returned to the country: protests have slowed and the interim government has repealed the curfew in place since June 28.
However complaints of censorship and mistreatment toward members of the foreign and local press continue to surface.
A series of arrests, a media blackout and attempts at censorship have been denounced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other human rights groups.
During the blackout following the coup, soldiers cut off local broadcasts of international television networks such as CNN en Español and Venezuelan-based Telesur. According to a Reuters report from June 29, “The few television and radio stations still operating on Monday played tropical music or aired soap operas and cooking shows.” The Tegucigalpa-based Canal 8—the national government-owned channel—was blocked for 24 hours. The privately owned pro-Zelaya Channel 36 was down for nearly a week, and resumed on Saturday, July 4.
Humberto Alexis Quiroz, the executive director for Comité por la Libre Expresión, a Tegucigalpa-based, press-rights advocacy group, says that journalists who have not been censored by force are censoring themselves for fear of retribution. “They’ve reopened the channels—but all have been pressured not to broadcast anything against the government,” Quiroz told me in an interview for this post.
The press continues to be under the government’s microscope. Last Saturday, six reporters from Telesur and Venezolana de Televisión (VTV) were detained by Honduran police. Although released the following day, they were instructed to not leave their hotel. Fearing for their safety, the reporters left the country that day—though some say they were expelled.
This latest incident comes after the June 29 detentions of seven journalists working for foreign media. An AP report gives a vivid description of their ordeal:
“At least 10 soldiers, most with rifles drawn, arrived at the hotel where journalists from The Associated Press and the [state sponsored] Venezuela-based television network Telesur were staying and unplugged their editing equipment in an apparent attempt to stop their coverage of protests in support of deposed President Manuel Zelaya….Garcia, an Argentine videojournalist, and Esteban Felix, a Peruvian photographer, and two Nicaraguan assistants were loaded into a military Land Cruiser, with another military vehicle following close behind. Also detained were Telesur journalists Adriana Sivori, producer Maria Jose Diaz and cameraman Larry Sanchez.”
They, too, were quickly released after speaking with immigration officials. Silvori, told Article 19, a London-based press-rights organization, : “They arrested us without any provocation and provided no explanation; it felt like we were back in the dictatorships of the 1980s.”
Human rights groups are also reporting censorship among many of the country’s media outlets. C-Libre reported that Nahún Palacios, the director of Canal 5 TV, was assaulted by security forces who raided his station on June 30. The organization also reported that the military told media “to broadcast information provided by de facto President Micheletti’s government and to refrain from criticizing President Zelaya’s removal if they wanted to avoid being closed down.”
However the media have not just suffered at the hands of the Honduran military. Elán Reyes Pineda, president of the Honduran Journalists Union, said pro-Zelaya protesters had threatened journalists at street protests and hurled stones and sticks at the offices of several Tegucigalpa outlets. No injuries were reported.
But even before the coup Honduras was not known for its press freedoms. Freedom House in its annual Press Freedom Survey ranks Honduras as “partly free,” and as the 106th freest country, just above Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ukraine. While “freedoms of speech and of the press are constitutionally protected,” the report claims, “the government [of Manuel Zelaya] generally does not respect these rights in practice.”
To little surprise, the evolving situation in Honduras is no longer front page news in the foreign press. But the lack of freedom of the press both before and after the coup is one story that never received the attention it deserves. Hopefully the media will have more freedom to report as we move beyond the crisis’ immediate aftermath.