Attacks on the Press 2001: Honduras

The independent press faced pressure from the government of President Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé. Powerful politicians dominated the media during the November 2001 presidential elections, while small political parties received little coverage and had very limited access to the press. Both the National Party (PN) and the ruling Liberal Party (PL) flooded radio and TV stations with advertisements, but PN candidate Ricardo Maduro emerged victorious, defeating PL candidate Rafael Pineda Ponce to become president.

In some cases, the media and politicians are indistinguishable. President Flores, member of the PL, owns the Tegucigalpa daily La Tribuna. Jaime Rosenthal, a businessman and unsuccessful candidate in the Liberal Party presidential primaries in 2000, owns the television channel Canal 11 and the San Pedro Sula­based daily Tiempo. Other politicians linked to the PL and the opposition National Party own national and regional radio and television stations.

The Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo, known for its anti-government editorial line, fired Manuel Torres and Roger Argueta, opinion editor and investigative reporter, respectively, in May, reportedly under government pressure. In April, El Heraldo editor Thelma Mejía resigned, also under government pressure. All three had criticized the government while working at the paper, and after they left, its coverage of the Flores administration became markedly less critical. Local sources have speculated that El Heraldo‘s owner, Jorge Canahuati, who has lucrative government contracts through some of his other companies, may have acquiesced to the dismissals for business reasons.

Journalists often accuse media owners of interfering with work in the newsrooms. In late April, a group of intellectuals, including several journalists, sent an open letter to media owners urging them to allow their companies to report the news objectively and without interference. In an early May letter, the media owners’ organization Asociación de Medios de Comunicación called the April letter a “slanderous document,” and accused its senders of “discrediting the nation” and using “blackmail and psychological pressure.”

Journalists are also vulnerable to bribery and other economic pressures because of their low salaries. Credible reports have revealed that politicians and businessmen have paid journalists in exchange for favorable coverage. Journalists have also been rewarded with loans, government advertising, or jobs with government agencies.

Defaming public officials is a criminal offense punishable by up to four years in prison, according to Article 345 of the Penal Code. The code also prescribes up to six years imprisonment for defaming the president.

May 1

Manuel Torres Calderón, El Heraldo
Roger Argueta, El Heraldo

Torres, op-ed editor for the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo, and Argueta, an investigative reporter for the paper, were fired under government pressure, according to the journalists and human rights organizations.

Torres told CPJ that prior to his dismissal, the government pressured the paper to tone down its editorials, which often criticized President Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé’s government.

Management told Torres that the decision to dismiss him had nothing to do with his work, but with “interests that come from above.” After he left El Heraldo, the paper started extolling the Flores administration.

Argueta told the human rights organization COFADEH that he was gradually relieved of his daily assignments and then fired. According to COFADEH, El Heraldo deputy director Julio César Marín claimed that Argueta had given statements criticizing El Heraldo to other media outlets, and that he had requested information regarding business deals that El Heraldo owner Jorge Canahuati had made with the government.

Canahuati, who also owns the San Pedro Sula-based daily La Prensa, the country’s largest paper, claimed that Torres’ dismissal was a “normal work circumstance” and denied that he had acted under government pressure.

Torres worked as an editorial writer for El Heraldo for five years, and in September 1999 became an op-ed editor for the paper. Under Torres, El Heraldo‘s op-ed section became one of the most respected in Honduras and one known for its openness to diverse opinions.

Argueta was hired by the former editor of El Heraldo, Thelma Mejía, who resigned in late April, allegedly under government pressure.