By Carlos Lauría/Americas Senior Program Coordinator
The ongoing political crisis following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya on June 28 has damaged the press freedom climate in Honduras. Complying with orders by caretaker leader Roberto Micheletti, Honduran security forces shut down local broadcasters, blocked transmissions of international news networks, and briefly detained journalists in the aftermath of the coup, CPJ research shows. But part of the damage was self-inflicted: Some media outlets have slanted coverage to favor the coup leaders.
Alexis Quiroz, executive director with the Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre), a local press freedom group, said the situation remains unstable. "The curfew imposed by the new government has created serious restrictions for local reporters," Quiroz told CPJ. But Quiroz also noted that some media outlets have favored Micheletti. On Sunday, when the military blocked Zelaya's return flight and opened fire on his supporters at the Tegucigalpa airport, most television stations broadcast an official event instead, he said.
Manuel Torres, an independent journalist and local media analyst, went as far as to say that most Honduran media have acted in a partisan way against Zelaya. "The ousted president," said Torres, "had a contentious relationship with the press and frequently used charged rhetoric" in responding to criticism in the media. Torres charged that media bias has led to manipulation of facts, the presentation of misleading information, and the use of selective censorship. "The press ignored the facts, misused sources, and transformed speculation into information," Torres told CPJ.
The Associated Press has reported that most TV stations have devoted coverage to protests favoring Micheletti, while ignoring those supporting Zelaya. Radio reports, the AP said, were more balanced but still delivered more information on the de facto government.
"The behavior of the Honduran media during the coup bears a resemblance to what happened in Venezuela [in 2002], ignoring facts or only broadcasting the views of the new officials," said Arturo Wallace Salinas, who covers Central America for the BBC. When Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted that year, prominent broadcasters were widely accused of slanting coverage in favor of the coup leaders.
Journalists at some outlets say the criticism is unfair. They complained about their reporters being attacked and harassed by Zelaya supporters while covering street demonstrations.
Rosángela Soto, a reporter and TV host with privately owned Channel 3 in Tegucigalpa, which belongs to television conglomerate Televicentro, told CPJ that reporters working for the media group had been attacked and harassed by Zelaya supporters. "We have been physically assaulted and threatened with death," Soto said. The TV host said Televicentro reporters cannot cover pro-Zelaya demonstrations because they fear reprisals. "We have decided not to cover those events because we cannot risk the lives of our journalists," Soto said.
Elán Reyes Pineda, president of the Honduran Journalists Union, added that pro-Zelaya protesters had threatened journalists at street protests and hurled stones and sticks at the offices of several Tegucigalpa outlets.
Media coverage aside, the coup leaders have taken assertive measures of their own to censor and control the flow of information. Electricity was cut off in the capital, Tegucigalpa, on the day of the coup, obstructing radio, television, and online coverage. The new governing authorities created an information vacuum, leaving Hondurans without the means to know what was happening in their own country.
The signals of two Tegucigalpa-based television stations and two radio stations were blocked hours after the coup on June 29, according to CPJ sources and press reports. The signal of Canal 8, a national, government-owned television station, was reinstated 24 hours later. Private television station Canal 36, which CPJ sources said had supported Zelaya, remained off the air until Sunday. Radio Globo and Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-run radio station in the northern city of El Progreso, were back on the air on June 30 but were operating with restrictions, reporters told CPJ.
So the coup leaders have clearly caused serious damage to the press. But by slanting their coverage, some news outlets have themselves devalued press freedom.