Seen as Either a Sell-Out or a Rebel: On the Difficulties of Reporting in Honduras
I’m from the small town, El Progreso, in Honduras’ northern department of Yoro. It’s where, ten years ago, I began my career as a journalist. In El Progreso there’s a strong, organized, and resilient social movement. Still though, people migrate, people flee. I started reporting on stories of young people returned to Honduras after being deported, including those that had been mutilated by the train. I told the story of Pilar, a member of COFAMIPRO, a committee made up of the mothers who organize every year to travel to Mexico in search of their sons or daughters who have disappeared while migrating north. Pilar has spent years searching for her daughter. One day, while visiting COFAMIPRO, Rosa Nelly was there organizing papers that described a case of torsos that would soon be repatriated. They were from migrants slaughtered on their journey north. To be a mother in Honduras is to know that you may find your child’s body hacked into pieces. To be a journalist in Honduras is to know that these stories are not an exception. The country is in pain. Telling these stories means it’s also necessary to tell what causes them, but that’s just where more problems begin.
In Honduras, the unconstitutional reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017 sparked a multitude of protests in the streets. The protests ranged from peaceful demonstrations to confrontations with the police, as well as the looting and burning down of businesses. It was a political crisis. The country was soon put under martial law and 22 people were killed by military forces. The police shot to kill. At the digital news site Contra Corriente—which I have been the editor in chief of since I cofounded it two years ago—only two people reported on it: the photographer Martín Cálix and me. When the peak of protests ended, we dedicated months to document the stories of the people who ended up imprisoned for destroying property in the protests. We went to a pair of funerals for young people killed in the protests and, months later, stayed in touch with their family members who had yet to find justice for the murders. We also spoke with the relatives of protestors who were locked up in maximum security prisons for four months.
Six months after the president’s inauguration, we went back to visit the families that had buried their children killed by military forces. Neighborhoods, like where Kimberly Dayana Fonseca lived, were closed off. Fonseca was a 19-year-old killed on the first day of curfew. “Here the gang protects us more than the authorities,” said one of her relatives after the neighbors were nervous just by us asking about Kimberly’s case. No one trusted outsiders: the police came around, asking questions that made the neighbors feel vulnerable. Journalists, too, were often seen as having close ties to the president.
In Honduras, doing independent journalism means constantly running into a wall. This wall is built by mafia-run institutions that have silenced and terrorized whole communities. To simplify a complex reality, the media has labelled the country a narcostate. It’s not hyperbole, but it also doesn’t capture all the complicated factors. We live in a reality where drug trafficking and political power complement each other, where institutions are meant to launder money and where a president can get himself reelected by using money made from drug trafficking and political robbery.
The narcostate label went viral when a New York court found the president’s brother guilty of various crimes related to drug trafficking. But Honduras is also more than a narcostate. Before, when there were no drug cartels to control the country, it was a corrupt group of elites, as well as a fruit company, that wielded power over the president. The state was designed to facilitate crime and the enrichment of a select few. In both setups, silence is golden. Silence is a form of survival.
Honduras is one of the poorest and most unequal countries in Latin America. While the elites receive legal benefits, the majority of the population lives a daily struggle or flees for the United States, seeking to escape hunger and poverty. Its geographic location has made it a hot spot for drugs as 80 percent of the cocaine headed towards the United States passes through this tiny country with weak and easy-to-infiltrate institutions. During the last ten years, Honduras has descended into a crisis following the coup d’état. The distrust of mass media has changed how people read and receive their news.
Internet access started to chip cracks in the wall that traditional outlets had built over the years—the narrative that nothing unseemly was happening in Honduras. The discussion of what went down in 2009 (whether it was a coup or not) began on social media, and only then was it mentioned in traditional media. The same discussion is happening now with the narcostate label.
The brave voices that began to talk about the state’s connections with gangs were, then, violently silenced. In 2014, Alfredo Landaverde—who was the former advisor of the Anti-Drug Trafficking Office created by the passing of the Public Ministry Law in December of 1993—told a news outlet that the chief of the National Police Force knew about the criminal structures trafficking in cocaine and how they were using the law to protect themselves. Even ordinary citizens knew who the drug lord in each of their cities was. Landaverde added that the politicians and the narcos would get together in San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and Tocoa, where the drug traffickers would buy off policemen and the armed forces. He said the drug money gained access to politicians, the justice system, and private businesses. Landaverde was killed a month after giving this statement; his murder has yet to be solved. The mass media soon forgot about the whole thing, including the impunity of his killers and his statements that set off the ordeal.
Amid the reshaping of drug trafficking cartels, the violence and the political crisis triggered by the illegal reelection of its current president, the Honduran government has made public audits illegal through its Secrecy Law, which protects state information that could “undermine national security.” In addition, any criticism through slander and libel has been redefined in the new penal code. The government has also shut down independent investigations via laws that have stripped power from the the National Anti-Corruption Council (known as MACCIH, for its initials in Spanish), which is about to expire and has yet to be renewed.
The criminal process that journalist David Romero has gone through, after he was sentenced to ten years in prison for defamation, shows how libel and slander are being used to threaten dissenting voices. The Secrecy Law has blocked the public from obtaining information, despite the existence of Honduras’ Law of Transparency. Above all, freedom of information requests pertaining to issues of security, budgets, and defense program planning are all kept under wraps.
Country of soldiers
Despite the fact that the number of homicides in Honduras has been, since 2017, cut nearly in half, according to government data, the many faces of violence continue to show themselves every day. There were 67 massacres—counted as an event with three or more people murdered—from January to December of this year, with 253 victims, according to the National Police Force. That would double the number of massacres recorded in the same timespan just last year.
And yet, Hernández continues to insist that Honduras has succeeded in reducing violence and that the country requires still bigger defense and security budgets. The president successfully consolidated power into a grotesque government body called the National Security and Defense Council, which he oversees himself. All the country’s security orders come directly from the council. And, since 2016, a treaty with Israel requires Honduras pay the Israeli government $209 million dollars for armed forces training, including cybersecurity. Hernández has maintained his rhetoric touting decreases in violence along with the unveiling of the new hybrid security forces that combine soldiers and police units, all of which are controlled by him and cannot be audited.
Following the coup, there was a lot of talk about the country’s militarization, but there simply isn’t much information on the subject. In 2010, the government launched a social program called Guardians of Heritage. The program entails armed forces training children from at-risk communities located in both urban and rural environments. This program is an example of how both the church and the military are able to infiltrate the educational system to indoctrinate a “God and Country” spirit in children living in poor and violent neighborhoods. Still, after ten years in existence, the program cannot be audited. On three different occasions during the year, the digital newspaper Contra Corriente requested information from this program that the public deserves to have, like the syllabus, program content, annual budget, and the amount of children in the program. The first response that came from the Secretary of Defense explained that the information from a social program managed by the army is private. While managing the budget and social programs for ten years, the Honduran Armed Forces was awarded a $163 million dollars fund this year for agricultural production.
Country of corruption
Honduras has proven throughout its history to be submissive to foreign interests, with its resources regularly exploited by outside industries including, currently, the illegal network of drug traffickers. Legal incentives favoring international businesses have grown under the new government. For example, in the energy sector, producers of renewable energy don’t pay taxes to the municipalities they impact.
Public-private alliances grant land to these international companies to develop projects that the Honduran people end up paying for, such as with the highway toll booths. The drug trade is emboldened by a military that helps monitor shipments taken to the borders, as we’ve learned from the president’s brother’s trial.
In 2015, thousands of Hondurans marched in the streets to demand a commission against impunity similar to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG, for its initials in Spanish), which was established by the United Nations. A potential Honduran commission could order investigations into the embezzlement of funds from the Honduran Social Security Institute, funds which were taken to finance the Hernández’s first campaign. In 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Council (MACCIH) was installed by the Organization of American States and has presented 11 cases that implicate more than 100 lawmakers, as well as other public workers and their relatives who have been accused of embezzling around $16 million dollars. These different corruption cases include allegations of diverting funds from NGOs and government offices, concessions, irregularities, an overvaluation of medical equipment for state contracts, as well as the Impunity Pact complaint that tried to block investigations into lawmakers. Considering that the same lawmakers it targets still remain in power, Hondurans still question how much power the anti-corruption council actually wields, and whether those proven guilty will ultimately spend any time in jail.
A month before the president decides whether or not the anti-corruption council continues, the National Congress passed a law that took away the Public Ministry’s ability to investigative corruption. This leaves it in the hands of the High Court of Auditors under the assumption that corruption is an administrative oversight and should not be left to a criminal procedure.
Lawmakers are guaranteed legislative impunity, and the anti-corruption council cases that irritate the president’s family are on hold as the Attorney General has not made progress in its investigation. There is no doubt that the anti-corruption council allowed journalists and citizens access to information that showed how corruption networks worked. It opened Pandora’s box: it was an opportunity that can now leave the whole country in the dark if the council isn’t renewed.
The anti-corruption council afforded journalists key access to anti-corruption cases. This was evident from criminal complaints that weren’t public before and judicial processes that the press didn’t have access to. In addition, there were structured case explanations never before revealed to the public, despite the council promising not to talk openly about the cases since it wanted “actions over words.” The fact that prosecutors are investigating the cases that journalists have uncovered is a positive sign.
The distrust in the media is, in some respects, deserved. Because of the media, people grew accustomed to hearing the same speeches, whether from government supporters or the opposition. Journalists covering street protests are often labelled as “sell outs” or as “reporters of the people.” On one hand, they are seen as victims of the demonstrations, while on the other hand they are seen as aggressors. The popular belief that journalism is done to attack others and not to reveal truth explains a lot about power structures in Honduras. Journalism can either show the consequences of an event or turn that same event into a problem. It turns Honduras into even more of a hostile environment for journalism.
The decriminalization of libel and slander doesn’t mean a journalist will be imprisoned for using his outlet to defame his enemies. Instead, it pushes back on the freedom of expression, pushes back on using journalism as a watchdog tool. Fear and distrust are the strongest enemies of Honduran journalism right now. Just take a quick glance at major Honduran outlets and you’ll see how journalism looks when it’s used as a political weapon. The media can echo the government’s official stance while using few sources and lashing out at anyone who criticizes this rhetoric. And then there are the famous opposition outlets that spread rumors and leaks without verification. They also like to point out, without evidence, that they are seen as independent, brave, and confrontational voices. That’s how the polarization looks in a society where you’re either a journalist who is “bought off” or a “rebel.” The search for the truth remains secondary.
In that hostile environment, with all that fear, journalism that makes people uncomfortable is all the more necessary.
*Translated by Michael Krumholtz
FI name: December 2019