Saturday, April 3, 2010

Responsible journalism?

An article published in the Honduran Proceso Digital online newspaper today says that Porfirio Lobo Sosa will be holding a meeting Monday between different government offices to discuss the wave of attacks, many fatal, on journalists in Honduras.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted in a report published this week, in March alone, five journalists were killed. This makes March 2010 the most deadly month ever for Honduran journalists, according to Thelma Mejía reporting on the IPS website. The CPJ says that this has "led to widespread self-censorship in the local media".

Independent and informed media point to the coup as triggering an increase in repression of media, including acts of extreme violence. Mejía writes that "local and international human rights groups warn that since the Jun. 28, 2009 coup that overthrew then president Manuel Zelaya, the wave of repression targeting the movement against the coup, as well as journalists, has not let up."

The Proceso Digital article instead takes the curious approach of tracing the beginning of violence against journalists back to 2007, mentioning a series of incidents in April 2008, the recovery of remains of a missing journalist in March 2009, and another death in April 2009. Even when citing the death of Gabriel Fino in July 2009, after the coup d'etat, Proceso Digital manages not to so much as mention the coup and its aftermath as a context.

CPJ reporting at the time of the death of Fino, a local radio reporter on the Atlantic coast and contributor to national programs, noted no specific motive had been identified; nor has any progress been reported in the succeeding months. Spanish language coverage at the time rejected any political motivation for Fino's death, with some stories suggesting it might have related to his reporting on drug trafficking. Nonetheless, a report by Daniel Kovalik published July 22, 2009 in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette identified Fino as "openly opposed to the coup", and numerous stories pointed out that the general repression of the press by the de facto regime created an unsafe atmosphere for reporters.

As Mejía notes in her IPS article, that atmosphere continues today. And so does murkiness about the motivations for these killings. This encourages US media outlets like the Los Angeles Times to present a distorted "fair and balanced" suggestion that "both the extreme right, long the dominant power in Honduras, and the extreme left would have reasons for sowing fear", citing Honduran law professor Leo Valladares. While Jose Osman Lopez, president of the Committee for Free Expression in Honduras, is quoted as saying "the killings of the journalists are part of a wider deterioration in human rights that has especially hurt opponents of the coup and belied talk of reconciliation", the impression left with the reader is that there might be anti-journalist violence by supporters of the resistance as much as by the repressive right wing.

The quote from Valladares is especially misleading, as this former commissioner of human rights has been a clear voice against violence and repression by the de facto regime installed after the coup d'Etat. In a widely reproduced interview from November 2009, Valladares made clear his support for mobilization in defense of human rights, and his condemnation of the right-wing coup that took over Honduras. In October, he was quoted in press coverage of repression as saying "all the actions of the de facto government have been nothing more than another strategy to cut off the voices that denounce human rights [violations]."

There are reasons to suspect that at least some of the recent surge in assassinations of journalists might be related to continuing repression of dissent. Many of those killed come from the north coast, where the conflict between the campesinos seeking land rights in the Bajo Aguan and private landowners, their security forces, and complicit media and police forces, continues to be heated.

This March, José Bayardo Mairena, a radio reporter, died while driving from Catacamas to Juticalpa, Olancho, as did another reporter accompanying him, Manuel Juarez. CPJ characterizes Bayardo Mairena as a "veteran journalist" who "handled general assignments that included coverage of organized crime and a land dispute in the Aguán region". Not included in the mainstream Honduran press coverage was the information that Bayardo Mairena "strongly questioned the coup d'etat carried out June 28, 2009. He also had systematically denounced the constant human rights violations carried out by the army and police against citizens in resistance on the radio station in Olancho where he worked".

Previously murdered was Nahúm Palacios Arteaga, of Channel 5 TV and Radio Tocoa in Tocoa, Atlántida, also reporting on the Aguan struggle. CPJ's report on Palacios correctly recalls that in June 2009, he "had been threatened by members of the military for his critical coverage of the coup" with his home and office raided and equipment confiscated. Despite a request in summer 2009 for protection for Palacios by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, none was provided.

Also killed in March on the Atlantic coast was David Meza Montesinos, a radio journalist on reporter La Ceiba station El Patio and a correspondent for Radio America, described by CPJ as covering drug trafficking and organized crime. His death has been attributed to drug traffickers.

So where does the insinuation of "extreme leftwing" violence against journalists come from? One attack has been linked, with great drama but no evidence, to the Honduran resistance, by radio personality Karol Cabrera, who survived it. Joseph Hernández Ochoa, the fifth journalist killed in March, died in the attack in Tegucigalpa. CPJ reported that Hernández Ochoa hosted an entertainment program on Tegucigalpa TV station Channel 51, and it was widely assumed that the principal target was Cabrera. Cabrera, who worked as a presenter on state-owned Canal 8 for the Micheletti regime, accused "Zelaya militants" of the attack on her, a charge she previously made in the unfortunate death of her daughter, a death investigators associated instead with acquaintance gang violence. In the more recent attack, the parents of Hernández Ochoa have actually accused Cabrera of engineering it to eliminate him.

The two attacks on Karol Cabrera, and her unsubstantiated claims that they were the work of opponents of the coup d'Etat, are the only reported examples of violence against journalists that have even been imputed, unconvincingly, to the progressive movement in Honduras. But leave it to the fair and balanced media in the US not only to give these claims equal weight, but to fail to provide the context that makes it clear that there is a pattern to the journalistic bloodbath of March.

That pattern points to the contested terrain of the north coast, where reporters seeking to spread real news put their lives in danger, in an atmosphere of violent repression fostered by the regime of the golpe de estado of 2009 and continuing under the Lobo Sosa administration.


Boehmaya said...

Thank you for writing this. The people really need this kind of support. How to outweigh mainstream media, which evidently speaks for the interests of the powerful?
It seems to me that their strategy to justify what they do and also to hide it, and even to blame it on others(the coup plotters, the power groups) is carried out by neutralizing public opinion and portraying the resistance movement and the ones executing state terrorism on the same pot.

An also interesting fact is that, US Ambassador Hugo Llorens went to the hospital to visit Cabrera, on the only (implicit)case of murder against a pro coup journalist, and made some public statements, also trying to make the point of "both sides being violent". Did he do the same for the other journalists? Joseph Hernández's parents were also protesting about him, as well as the media, and the police exploiting this case and only approaching Cabrera, not them, who are the parents of the journalist who was actually murdered. They said something like "it is not about Joseph's murder for them, but about the 'murder attempt' against Cabrera".
The fact that the US ambassador and the pro coup media exploit this case and the one of Cabrera's daughter's murder, intending to deliberately ignore that she was killed by youth gang violence is more like an evidence that they are using this (or perhaps have even planned with anticipation) to demonize the resistance movement.

RAJ said...

Adrienne Pine noted that US Ambassador Llorens only spoke out specifically about the shooting of Cabrera. Indeed, as covered by La Tribuna, Llorens went further: without any basis in police investigation, he is quoted as saying

what is clear in my mind is that it was an attempt to assassinate her for her political positions.

I could not find any such specific statement by Llorens on any of the other killings, where there is good reason to think the political content of their reporting was the reason for their targeting.

Indeed, by taking the a priori position that Cabrera was a target for political reasons, Llorens advances a claim the US makes in its official statements on journalist killings, such as one on the killing of Nahúm Palacios at the OAS:

it appears that individuals who express political opinions, especially regarding the coup d’état of June 28 –either for it or against it-- are targeted for violence and intimidation.

The implication that there is equal violence from right and a demonized caricature of the left would not even be justified if it were clear that Cabrera was targeted for her political position, as there would remain a clear preponderance of violence against progressive journalists, and of course, progressive activists.

I do not doubt Cabrera is disliked for her outspoken support of Roberto Micheletti. And I do not doubt that has resulted in speech against her that she has found uncomfortable, or that is uncivil. And I do not even rule out the possibility that her position on the coup is somehow related to the attack on her, although the evidence about both attacks suggests something more personal.

But it is worth noting that Cabrera exemplifies the problem with mainstream Honduran press, which never has managed to adopt a degree of journalistic independence (with a slight nod here to Tiempo during the regime of Micheletti). The other journalists targeted recently work in radio, the sector of Honduran journalism that has distinguished itself more for its commitment to rooting out what is happening, and there is more to suggest that these reporters were targeted for their work on issues that include the Aguan conflict, as well as the equally politically sensitive topic of drug trafficking. It muddies the water to group them with a television presenter who earned disrespect from some and beatification from others for being a mouthpiece of the de facto regime.