Journalism plays a special role in modern society. Though in itself a neutral institution, the content of disseminated information plays a substantial role in shaping public consciousness. Information facilitates cohesion among members of a population through common awareness. Furthermore, and most important, it helps define the relationship between government and citizen. Depending on the power structure of a society, the right information can subdue a population, but the wrong information has the power to animate, galvanize, and organize people. This is why some journalists are dangerous.
It’s why journalists in Honduras are terrorized to this day. BBC reported on May 8 that Erick Martinez, a noted LGBT activist, journalist, and dissident, was recently found strangled and dead. Another journalist, Alfredo Villatoro, was kidnapped on May 9 and has yet to be found. Let’s examine the conditions that may have contributed to the growing chaos in Honduras.
Since the rise of the Lobo administration in Honduras, “the country has been descending deeper into a human rights and security abyss” according to labor historian and expert on Latin American, Dana Frank of UC Santa Cruz (1). Pepe Lobo took power after a military coup removed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 much to the disapproval of the rest of Latin America (2). Despite Zelaya’s illegitimate ousting, the Obama administration welcomed Lobo warmly. Hugo Llorens, then-ambassador to Honduras, called it a “great celebration of democracy.” Let’s evaluate.
Zelaya’s presidency was characterized by progressive educational reforms, increased minimum wage, and poverty reduction in a country where 70% of the population is poor and 90% of the wealth is controlled by a handful of aristocratic families (3). Obviously, he needed to go. The Lobo regime, on the other hand, has been marked by increased violence, repression, corruption, and human rights abuses. It now boasts the highest murder rate in the world and a particular distaste for agents of media scrutiny.
Still, two years after the “celebration of democracy,” Obama reaffirmed his validation of the new Honduras: “Two years ago, we saw a coup in Honduras that threatened to move this country away from democracy, and in part because of pressure from the international community, but also because of the strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us hope” (4).
Just how strong is this democracy? Inter Press Service reported in January that Lobo’s approval rating had hit an all time low. Father Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and director of Radio Progreso, called it an “overwhelming failure” (5). Indeed, a dysfunctional democracy is a likely result of widespread fear in the midst of political violence.
Lobo responded to the worsening human rights situation by pledging his government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September 2011 (6). It’s worth noting that article 19 of the Declaration states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.” Unfortunately, you are not exactly free to report information while under the constant intimidation and fear of being murdered which are exactly the conditions facing journalists in Honduras today.
Research from the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that 15 journalists have been murdered since the coup with 3 of them confirmed to have been work-related. Furthermore, the research documents cases of harassment, assault, and torture of other journalists as well as state-sponsored oppression of media outlets and facilities (7).
Amnesty International recently released an urgent action notice regarding several human rights activists and journalists receiving death threats and sexual intimidation. One activist and reporter, Dina Meza, received text messages stating, “We’ll burn your pussy with lime until you scream and the whole squad will enjoy it…You’ll end up dead like people in the Aguan there’s nothing better than fucking some bitches” (8). Similarly, a radio program host, Gilda Silvestrucci, received a phone call in which she was told, “We already know you have three children…just now you were in the street with your son…and the eldest is at home…and we’re going to kill you” (9).
Now perhaps these are garden-variety scare tactics, but they are still very real and very frightening. Furthermore, the subjection of human rights reporters to these tactics severely undermines hopes for functioning democracy in a country plagued by violence, repression, and corruption. At the center of it all is Miguel Facusse Barjum, a wealthy agro-industrialist member of the oligarchic elite. He was recently added to the list of Predators of Freedom of Information which is compiled by Reporters Without Borders. What makes him special was his support for the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya and his subsequent role in the crackdown on campesino landownership through violent means (10). Furthermore, the private army employed by Facusse has been supported by U.S. Drug Dar funding.
What makes him extra special was a WikiLeaks revelation of the State Department’s prior knowledge that Facusse has been an importer of cocaine (11). A major one, no doubt, given the newly vitalized narcotrafficking channels in Honduras since the 2009 coup. As such, it’s no surprise that Colombia’s then president Alvaro Uribe welcomed the new regime shortly thereafter.
In a letter addressed to President Lobo, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, called for attention to the issue of violence against journalists: “Amid a politically charged atmosphere of violence and lawlessness, your government’s inability to guarantee the safety of journalists or successfully investigate crimes against the press is hindering the coverage of sensitive issues while putting democracy at risk” (12). The fragility of democracy in Honduras is highlighted by Washington’s attempt to make it a satellite state for its drug war. The business elites that run the country are under no pressure to enact population-level reforms. Moreover, they’re backed by the imperial power that seeks to dominate the hemisphere. As the local media are prevented from disseminating critical information that represents the interests of the population, prospects for democratic self-determination are profoundly hindered. And it’s no reason to celebrate.