No Press Freedom in Post-Coup Honduras
When José David Ellner Romero heard the soldiers breaking down the door of the Globo radio station on the evening of the June 28 coup, he had a flashback. His mind conjured up the terrible images from the 1980s, when he was arrested by the military, thrown into an underground prison and tortured. "I couldn't stand the thought of going through that hell again, so I got out on the ledge of the windowsill and jumped," Elner told our delegation. His fractured shoulder, ribs and bruises were minor given that he jumped from the third floor.
The owner of the station, Alejandro Villatoro, was thrown to the ground by soldiers who put their guns to his head and demanded to know where the transmitter was. Villatoro also happens to be a deputy in the National Assembly from the governing Liberal Party, but that didn't afford him special treatment. While Villatoro was not a fan of deposed President Mel Zelaya, he believes in free speech and always guaranteed his employees that freedom. After the military invaded and censored his station, he now supports Zelaya's return. "If this new government says it's for democracy, then why is it censoring the press? This is the 21st century," he told us. "We shouldn't have coups and censorship and thugs running the country."
Radio Globo is now back on the air, but one of its most critical programs, Hable como habla, is still banned and the host of the show, Eduardo Maldonado, is in hiding. And every now and then, like when they broadcast an interview with the deposed president, their signal is suddenly blocked.
Reporter Luis Galdamez, who hosts a show on Radio Globo, is back on the air but the military told him not to criticize the new government. He refuses to buckle, but he's scared. "I get death threats every day. I don't even read my text messages anymore, they're so grotesque" he said. On our insistence, he pulled out his iphone and randomly picked from the 64 new messages he had. "We're watching you," the message read. "We know where you live and how many children you have. If you keep talking shit, we're going to hang you and cut out your tongue for talking shit. Remember what happened in the 80s."
Galdamez, a single father, is under tremendous pressure. At night, he sees cars without license plates outside his house, rifles pointing out the window. He wants to leave the country, but doesn't know where he and his children could go.
Another radio station under attack is Radio Progreso in the city of Progreso. Four hours after the coup around 25 soldiers stormed into the studios of the community-based station and closed it down. Hundreds of local people quickly gathered to defend the station and demand that the military leave. Thanks to the tremendous outpouring of support, Radio Progreso opened the next day, Monday, but by Tuesday the soldiers were back again. The station is now transmitting clandestinely.
While the coup leaders say they are bringing back democracy by deposing an autocratic president, their first actions after kidnapping the president and flying him to Costa Rica was to keep the public in the dark. At the time of the coup on June 28, they cut the electricity and when it came back on four hours later, news programs had been replaced by music shows, soap operas, sports and cooking lessons.
By day two, most TV and radio stations were back on the air, but the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) notified cable TV operators of a ban on broadcasting certain international TV stations such as Telesur, Cubavisión Internacional and CNN Español. The pro-Zelaya Channels 36 and 50 were also banned, their studios surrounded by soldiers. Another TV station not allowed to broadcast was Canal 66 Maya TV. "They've taken off the air everyone who does not support the coup," said Santos Gonzalez, a Channel 50 reporter.
The owner of Channel 36, Esdras Amado Lopez, received threats that he would be arrested and went into hiding. A week after the coup, the station was still shut and surrounded by soldiers. The government-operated Channel 8, located inside the heavily guarded presidential palace, was taken off the air but was back in business on Wednesday-transmitting the new government's propaganda. All of the TV stations are now decidedly pro-coup, devoting significant coverage to demonstrations in favor of the new government while ignoring or minimizing mass rallies supporting Zelaya.
The only reason there is not more press censorship in Honduras today is because most of the media-TV, print and radio-is owned by businesspeople who support the coup. Edgardo Dumas, publisher of the large circulation daily La Tribuna and the country's former Defense Minister, claims that rumors about censorship are "totally and absolutely false." In a July 2 interview with W Radio in Bogotá, Colombia, Dumas claimed, "I don't see any limit on freedom of the press. The four newspapers are putting out impartial and true news. No TV or radio station has been interfered with." When asked why CNN was cut, he said it was "misinforming" the public and was "on the payroll of the dictator of Venezuela Hugo Chavez."
The more educated Hondurans are now seeking information from the internet and text messages, but most Hondurans are getting a daily dose of pro-coup propaganda and journalists who oppose the government are doing so at great risk to themselves and their families.
The Honduran people should have the right to know what their new leaders, in the name of democracy, are doing to destroy the very basic foundations of a democratic system-a free press.