Attacks on the Press 2002: Honduras

There were signs that the press freedom climate improved this year under President Ricardo Maduro, of the National Party (PN), who took office on January 27. Maduro has shown more tolerance of criticism than his predecessor, Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, and so far has not attempted to co-opt the press. However, some journalists cautioned that it was too early to tell whether Maduro’s attitude amounted to a meaningful change.

The complex web of personal and business relations among media owners and political parties continues to compromise the independence of major media outlets. Former president Flores owns the daily La Tribuna, the mouthpiece of the opposition Liberal Party (PL). Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, a businessman and influential PL politician, owns the television channel Canal 11 and the daily El Tiempo. Businessman and PL politician Víctor Bendeck Ramírez controls Canal 13 and Radio Reloj.

On July 10, in a public announcement in El Tiempo, Canal 13 and Radio Reloj accused government officials of withdrawing advertising because of the stations’ critical coverage of a secret trip by President Maduro to Italy in June.

In February, criminal charges were brought against Sandra Maribel Sánchez, director of two weekly radio programs broadcast on Tegucigalpa-based Radio América, by former comptroller general Vera Sofía Rubí. Rubí accused Sánchez of “intercepting phone calls and violating secrets” and of “illegally practicing journalism.” (Under Honduran law, journalists must register in a trade association called a colegio. Sánchez graduated from journalism school but never registered with a colegio.)

The lawsuit against Sánchez came after she released the contents of an audiotape in January featuring a 1999 conversation between Rubí and then president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Oscar Armando Ávila Banegas. On the tape, Rubí and Ávila discuss trying to influence the outcome of several high-profile corruption cases. At the time of the disclosure of the tape, whose authenticity has not been questioned, Rubí was a nominee to the Supreme Court. In late January, however, a committee charged with approving the nominations rejected Rubí. As of October, her case against Sánchez was stalled, and Sánchez’s colleagues were pressing for a ruling.

Meanwhile, Honduran journalists remain vulnerable to bribes and other economic pressures because of their low salaries. Investigative journalism is almost nonexistent. Defaming public officials is a criminal offense punishable by up to four years in prison (up to six years for defaming the president), according to Article 345 of the Penal Code.