THE HONDURAN PRESS CONTINUED ITS STRUGGLE to find an independent voice in the face of pressures from the executive and the judiciary.
In April, when the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo published a report by the state Human Rights Commission denouncing corruption in the judiciary, Judge Rita Núñez called El Heraldo journalist Leonarda Andino to her office to testify about the circumstances of the report’s publication. For almost an hour, the judge tried without success to force Andino to reveal her source. Supreme Court president Oscar &AACUTE;vila Banegas was quoted afterwards in local newspapers as saying that press coverage of the human rights report “damages Honduras’ image abroad.”
Appalled Honduran journalists condemned what they saw as an attack on press freedom and criticized the Colegio de Periodistas de Honduras, a local press association, for not taking a strong stance in defense of the journalists who had published the document.
Local politicians own several major news outlets. President Carlos Flores of the ruling Liberal Party (PL) owns the Tegucigalpa daily La Tribuna. Jaime Rosenthal, a businessman and unsuccessful candidate in the PL’s December 3 presidential primary, owns the television channel Canal 11 and the daily Tiempo. The Honduran press has often been accused of succumbing to political influence and publicizing high-profile government officials, politicians, and businessmen while ignoring other voices. In one case, Rossana Guevara, news director with the Vica Televisión network, claimed she lost her job due to government pressure after her news program criticized the Flores administration.
Journalists are also vulnerable to bribery and other economic pressure because of their low salaries. There have been credible reports of payments made by politicians and businessmen to journalists in exchange for favorable coverage.
More independent journalism can be a dangerous business. In late April, radio journalist Julio César Pineda survived an assassination attempt near the city of San Pedro Sula, apparently in retaliation for his radio station’s coverage of labor, health care, and immigration issues, and because of his own work on a local human rights commission. There were also reports of harassment against journalists who covered environmental degradation.
Under the 1972 Organic Law of the College of Journalists of Honduras, all journalists must register with the college, for which one needs a university degree in journalism or a related field. Journalists who break this law can be fined. In 1985, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that laws requiring the mandatory licensing of journalists violate the American Convention on Human Rights.
Julio César Pineda, Radio Progreso
Pineda, the media relations coordinator at Radio Progreso, a radio station owned by Jesuit priests, was shot and seriously wounded at around 6:30 p.m. as he arrived on a motorcycle at his home in San Pedro Sula.
The journalist was attacked by two men who got out of a white van with no license plates and shot him in the forehead. Pineda, who was wearing a helmet, survived the attack, but was left crippled and bleeding. He remained hospitalized for 26 hours and received medical treatment for nine days.
In the months prior to the attack, Radio Progreso, in the northern town of El Progreso, had documented several cases of medical malpractice in the local hospital. The station also denounced the Honduras Medical Association for refusing to work with a Cuban medical brigade after Hurricane Mitch, and opposed an increase in urban transportation fares in El Progreso. According to Pineda, this coverage angered local doctors and bus owners.
As coordinator of the press department, Pineda had earlier represented Radio Progreso on a joint commission with representatives from the National Police, the Direction of Criminal Investigation, the National Commissioner of Human Rights, and the Justice Department, which investigated executions of gang members and former gang members in El Progreso.
The commission’s report, released on September 9, 1999, hinted at local police involvement in the murders, leading the local chief of police, César Augusto Somoza, to tell Pineda: “You have to be careful of what you say,” according to the journalist and Omar Serrano, the director of Radio Progreso.
Pineda had received threatening phone calls prior to the April 26 murder attempt. On April 18, he was followed on the road from El Progreso to San Pedro Sula. He continued to receive phone calls from callers who hung up as soon as he answered, and his wife said that unidentified individuals had followed her.
In a May 25 letter to Honduran president Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, CPJ demanded that authorities conduct a thorough investigation into the attack and provide protection for Pineda and his family.