Free Press Under Attack in Honduras

Police Outside Radio

As Carlos Salgado walked out of the Radio Cadena Voces station in Tegucigalpa around 4 p.m. on Oct. 18, two gunmen fired seven shots at him and killed him instantly. The murder of the 67-year-old creator of the popular satirical program “Frijol, El Terible” is being seen across Honduras as the latest example of brutal repression of journalists by the administration of president Manuel Zelaya Rosales.

Police Outside Radio

As Carlos Salgado walked out of the Radio Cadena Voces station in Tegucigalpa around 4 p.m. on Oct. 18, two gunmen fired seven shots at him and killed him instantly. The murder of the 67-year-old creator of the popular satirical program “Frijol, El Terible” is being seen across Honduras as the latest example of brutal repression of journalists by the administration of president Manuel Zelaya Rosales. 

Two weeks after Salgado’s murder, the head of Radio Cadena Voces, Dagoberto Rodriguez, fled to  the U.S. with his family after being informed by police of a tip that he would be assassinated within 72 hours. Police reportedly said his would-be assassins were not connected to the killers of Salgado. Though the department obviously has inside knowledge of the planned murder, there have been no arrests made.

Rodriguez said he had been followed by a car with mirrors continuously in recent weeks, and other journalists at Radio Cadena Voces have also reported receiving death threats and harassment from people they believe to be linked to the government.

For example reporter Edgardo Escoto said he got a call on his cell phone while covering  a funeral in September saying, “If you carry on pissing us off, we will bury you like this.”

The station’s website was also hacked and sabotaged; at one point the content was replaced with pornography.

Meanwhile on Sept. 7, Channel 13 TV reporter Geovanny Garcia was shot during broad daylight and hit in the hand. Garcia, who left the country after the attack, had reported on official corruption related to street paving and repair contracts.

Also in September, Martin Ramirez, a reporter for La Tribuna newspaper, received multiple threats after running a story on maras (gangs) and their ties to police.  The threats intensified after police publicly identified Ramirez.

Journalists and human rights groups in Honduras say the attacks are likely precipitated and tolerated by government officials in response to media reports on government corruption.

“The murder of Carlos Salgado confirms the deterioration in press freedom in Honduras,” says a statement from the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders. “The worsening and terrible climate between the government of Manuel Zelaya and the media unfortunately contributes to this situation.”

Zelaya has responded in the press that the attacks are the work of well-organized crime groups, and that the government will provide extra protection for journalists who request it. Police spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia told El Heraldo that the attacks could be the work of a few people trying to create a crisis and fear among journalists.

Meanwhile on Sept. 28, the state-owned phone company Hondutel charged six journalists who had reported on corruption in the company with defamation. Two Radio Cadena Voces reporters were charged, along with two reporters from the TV station Televicentro, the director of the paper La Prensa and a chief editor from the paper El Heraldo, known as a voice of the right-wing anti-Zelaya National Party.

In the last five years, including two years under Zelaya and three years under former president Ricardo Maduro, more than 20 journalists have been charged with this infraction. Defamation is a criminal offense in Honduras (unlike the U.S., where it is civil); carrying a possible jail term. Journalists who “offend the president of the Republic” can be sentenced to 12 years in prison, according to the Constitution.

Hondutel head Marcelo Chimirri, who filed the charges, was caught on tapes recently posted on YouTube and viewed by more than a million people talking to Zelaya and other government officials about, among other things, controlling the media.

(Last year, an official of Hondutel also allegedly punched and threatened reporter Octavio Carvajal, host of an opinion program.)

International free press and human rights groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Inter-American Press Society and Reporters Without Borders are continuing to call for a meaningful investigation of Salgado’s killing. On Oct. 27 a 29-year-old man with several previous arrests for petty offenses was detained on illegal arms transport charges and held on suspicion of Salgado’s murder. He was briefly released because of a blatant error on the police report – his arrest date was wrongfully recorded as Oct. 22 – until a  judge ordered he be taken into custody again.

However critics say there is no meaningful evidence linking him to the crime. Immediately after the murder police made public statements insinuating Salgado’s personal life and “moral” issues led to the attack – an unprofessional “blame the victim” tactic many see as an attempt to divert attention from government culpability.

Salgado’s “El Frijol” show had run for more than 20 years, dealing with the indignities and challenges of everyday life including high food prices and transportation problems. He was known for mocking and satirically criticizing Zelaya’s administration as well as past governments.

Journalists marched in Tegucigalpa after Salgado’s murder demanding an investigation and an end to what they describe as intense and growing suppression and intimidation of the press. Meanwhile Zelaya has publicly complained numerous times that the media treats him unfairly.

In late summer Zelaya told a Radio Cadena Voces reporter that he would no longer grant her interviews, saying that, “If I was Hugo Chavez, I would have had this radio station shut down a long time ago.”

On May 24, 2007 Zelaya announced that TV and radio stations would be compelled to broadcast 10 separate dispatches and interviews from public officials to “counteract the misinformation of the news media.” Under regulations of the National Telecommunications Commission, in emergencies or situations of serious national interest the president has the power to  order simultaneous national broadcasting of these “cadena” messages which pre-empt regular programming.

A May 31 letter from Committee to Protect Journalists president Joel Simon to Zelaya charges that his use of the cadenas to counter negative publicity violates the Honduran constitution’s guarantees of press freedom and free expression, as well as the American Convention on Human Rights, signed by Honduras.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Honduras 87th in press freedom worldwide (the U.S. is ranked 17th; Mexico is 75th).

Press freedom has long been precarious in Honduras, especially in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 when then-president Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse’s administration allegedly instituted government policies and took various measures to silence press criticism of corruption in the country’s recovery efforts and use of aid money.

A 1999 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that the country’s few independent journalists regularly had their phones tapped, faced ridicule in the establishment press and suffered threats and intimidation. That year Rossana  Guevara, who is currently one of the defendants charged with defamation by Hondutel, was harassed and had her dog poisoned after reporting on government corruption. Another TV reporter suffered an attempted kidnapping after reporting on a possible coup.

But journalists say the current situation under Zelaya – who ironically was heralded by many as a member of the “new Latin American left” leadership club and an anti-corruption reformer when he was elected – is worse than ever.

“Never in 30 years of my career have I seen such intolerance for criticism and the independent press,” Renato Alvarez, one of the Televicentro reporters charged with defamation, told Reporters Without Borders. “They want to silence us so we can’t  talk about corruption in the public administration.”