• Coup damages press freedom, reveals partisan media divide.
• Supporters of both sides in the conflict wage attacks on the press.
22: Days that Radio Globo and Canal 36 were off the air due to government censorship.
The June coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, along with the bitter stalemate that ensued, damaged press freedom in Honduras and heightened partisan divisions in the news media. An interim government cracked down on news coverage and withstood intense international pressure until a scheduled November presidential election brought Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, a conservative businessman, to office. As Lobo pledged reconciliation, Zelaya decried the vote as tainted.
THE PRESS: 2009
• Main Index
• In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters
• United States
• Other developments
The election divided the regional and international community. The United States, which initially sought to reverse the coup, ultimately backed the vote as credible, as did several other nations. Venezuela, whose leader, Hugo Chávez, was a strong Zelaya supporter, refused to recognize the election, joining regional powers Brazil and Argentina in dismissing the vote as tainted. International electoral groups declined to monitor the vote, The Washington Post noted, because of the political conflict and irregularities such as the silencing of pro-Zelaya media.
The political crisis began June 28 when Zelaya—who was pursuing a controversial proposal to eliminate presidential term limits—was arrested by the army and put on a plane to Costa Rica. As veteran congressional leader Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as interim president, security forces closed local broadcasters, blocked transmission of international networks, and briefly detained reporters, CPJ research showed.
A day after the coup, armed soldiers arrested five foreign correspondents and two support workers inside their hotel in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Adriana Sivori, a reporter for the Venezuelan government-backed regional network Telesur, her producer María José Díaz, and her cameraman Larry Sánchez were detained, along with Nicolás García and Esteban Felix, a video journalist and photographer reporting for The Associated Press, and their two unidentified assistants. All of them were released a short time later, according to CPJ interviews. Cable television transmissions were blocked intermittently during the 48 hours after the coup, interrupting coverage from CNN and Telesur. By using law enforcement to restrict news coverage immediately after the coup, the de facto government created an information vacuum that kept many Hondurans unaware of what was happening in their own country.
Press freedom conditions suffered further blows as supporters of both sides launched attacks on the press. The interim government took aim at pro-Zelaya outlets: Privately owned Radio Globo and television station Canal 36, both of which were critical of the interim government, were forced off the air several times. The longest interruption began September 28, when security forces raided their offices and confiscated equipment. The two outlets were taken off the air under the provisions of a government decree announced that same day. The decree, which suspended constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, appeared to be aimed at suppressing turnout for a Zelaya rally planned that day in Tegucigalpa, but it was also used to justify media raids. Article 4 of the decree authorized the National Telecommunications Commission to suspend broadcasters for “statements that attack peace and the public order, or which offend the human dignity of public officials, or attack the law.” Both news outlets were allowed to return to the air on October 20.
Reporters working for the mainstream press, most of which were aligned with the caretaker administration, also reported harassment and attacks. In August, unidentified assailants hurled at least three homemade explosive devices at the offices of El Heraldo, the Tegucigalpa-based national daily viewed as supportive of Micheletti, according to press reports. The bombs exploded near the paper’s main entrances but caused no injuries and only minor damage. Rosángela Soto, a reporter and TV host with the pro-coup media group Televicentro, told CPJ that her colleagues had been beaten and threatened by Zelaya militants, deterring them from covering demonstrations supporting the ousted president. On November 4, assailants hurled an explosive device at the Tegucigalpa offices of Radio HRN, a station seen as supportive of the caretaker administration. Two HRN employees were injured.
Honduran reporters and advocates said that during the tense political standoff most TV stations covered protests favoring Micheletti, while ignoring those supporting Zelaya. Reports from radio outlets, except a few pro-Zelaya stations, were more balanced but still delivered more information on the interim government.
Arturo Wallace Salinas, who covers Central America for the BBC, told CPJ that the Honduran media’s performance “resembled what happened in Venezuela [in 2002], ignoring facts or only broadcasting the views of the new officials.” When Venezuela’s Chávez was briefly ousted in 2002, prominent broadcasters were widely accused of slanting coverage in favor of the coup leaders. (Chávez also accused them of plotting the coup, an assertion they denied.)
Alexis Quiroz, executive director of the Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre), a Honduran press freedom group, said slanted coverage could be seen in Zelaya’s first, unsuccessful attempt to return to Honduras. After the Honduran military blocked the airport’s runway to prevent Zelaya’s flight from landing, soldiers opened fire on his supporters, leaving at least two dead and dozens injured. Most TV stations, Quiroz said, ignored the news and aired an official, interim government event instead.
In August, Zelaya accused several media owners of planning the coup. He named two former presidents—Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, owner of the daily La Tribuna, and Ricardo Maduro, a principal in Radio Cadena Voces—along with José Rafael Ferrari, owner of the Televicentro and Emisoras Unidas groups, and Jorge Canahuati Llarach, a principal in the dailies El Heraldo and La Prensa. But Zelaya provided no evidence of any direct involvement in the takeover.
Tensions further escalated after Zelaya secretly returned from exile on September 21 and sought refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. Zelaya’s return created a nervous standoff as he demanded to retake the presidency and Micheletti threatened him with arrest if he set foot outside the embassy. After intensive international negotiations, the interim government agreed to allow Zelaya to return to office after the November election so he could serve out the remaining two months of his term. Under the deal, the presidential vote would be recognized by both sides, and neither Zelaya nor Micheletti would be candidates. But the agreement soon fell apart: Zelaya urged his supporters to boycott the election, and he later alleged fraud in the balloting. Congress, in turn, voted in December to block Zelaya’s reinstatement.
Throughout, the political dispute was echoed in media advertising. As part of a campaign intended to damage Zelaya’s reputation, the interim government produced a number of television ads alleging that the ousted president had stolen millions from the Central Bank. On the other side, analysts noted, Zelaya persuaded media allies such as Radio Globo and Canal 36 to air his unusual, unsubstantiated allegations that Israeli commandos had been hired to murder him.
Two reporters were killed in unclear circumstances. Rafael Munguía Ortiz, a correspondent for Radio Cadena Voces, was killed in a drive-by shooting in the northwestern town of San Pedro Sula in March, according to news reports. In July, an unidentified assailant shot broadcast and newspaper reporter Gabriel Fino Noriega as he was leaving radio station Estelar in the northern town of San Juan Pueblo, police told CPJ. No arrests were reported in either case. CPJ was investigating the deaths to determine whether they were work-related.