Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Honduran Government vs. Freedom of the Press

Porfirio Lobo Sosa neither understands, nor likes, freedom of the press. He laments the fact that the Honduran press can print things that he thinks are not true, and threatens publishers for not supporting government policies.

Stories demonstrating this are not uncommon. On February 8, La Prensa published an account, headlined "President Lobo returns to threatening the media of communication", quoting Lobo Sosa complaining that newspapers shouldn't display images of violence because they affect young people:
"I don't know how Ana Pineda has not entered a complaint with the UN or before whoever it should be, you know the damage that the media of communication does to children, some of them in their front page display the violence".

Back in December, Lobo Sosa personalized his attack, decrying the publisher of two Honduran daily newspapers, La Prensa and El Heraldo, Jorge Canahuati, for allegedly opposing his police purification campaign, because they covered the rejection of the law by justices of the Supreme Court (later removed in a legally dubious way by Congress).

In February Lobo Sosa again singled out the same two papers, this time for criticizing his lack of progress against the level of fatal violence in the country:
Here we have two newspapers that greet me every day, what they forget is that although the days are passing by rapidly, they will never make me bend, I am going to impose order in Honduras, you can be sure.

We make no claim that the Honduran press is exceptionally reliable, or lacking in bias. But Lobo Sosa wants to stop the press from doing anything that makes his government uncomfortable, even though part of the role of a free press is just that: making the powerful uncomfortable.

Lobo Sosa's government has now developed a proposal for a new Ley Marco de Telecomunicaciones (Telecommunications Law).  As La Prensa reports, the proposed law would allow the government to close media outlets, and would introduce an unprecedented censorship body.

The target is broadcast media, radio and television, whose ownership overlaps with the print media against whom Lobo Sosa has railed, but which are more easily subject to government control because they are dependent on licensing of the broadcast spectrum.

At the end of last week, press reports on proposed reforms presented to Lobo Sosa by CONATEL (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones) said the new law would
seek to regulate the granting of radio and television frequencies and to create mechanisms to censor radio, television, and print media. The proposal has been based on a proposal presented by the non-governmental organization Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre), whose content turned out to be more injurious than the Government's proposal for the regulation of media, since it even spoke of Committees of Censorship for radio and television news programs...

 C-Libre is a consortium formed in June 2001, with a stated mission to promote freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Honduras. It had previously made its proposed telecommunications law revisions available on its website. While much of their proposal has to do with ensuring access to broadcast spectrum by different sectors of society (including a proposal to limit ownership of broadcast media to one channel per family), it also included a passage that seems intended to respond to Lobo Sosa's critiques of the media: a call for a national council for the regulation of ethics in communications.

The new body they proposed would oversee programming to assure that it conforms to morals, to avoid what C-Libre called the loss of national moral values and identity.  It would have oversight to determine if programming was appropriate for a Honduran audience.  It would be able to make lists of the kind of programming considered damaging to the Honduran population.

While in theory it could  not restrict the rights of the media with respect to guarantees of freedom of religion, ideas, or politics, this provision in C-Libre's proposal was denounced by a representative of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (SIP) in Honduras, Rodolfo Dumas:
“It disturbs us very much when the proposal of C-Libre speaks of a national council of regulation of ethics in communication, that is worrying because we already known that both the Convención Americana [de Derechos Humanos], la Declaración Universal [de Derechos Humanos] and our internal law prohibits advance censorship, and it is an absolute prohibition, This type of article has to be approached with great caution."
He also noted that there even is a section of the proposal that speaks of the need for truth. It demands that the news should be true, which is a term that today many politicians like to use when they refer to these issues, he added, He noted that "there is already a declaration of principles issued by all those related in regard to liberty of expression in which the demands of truthfulness, expedience, and impartiality are incompatible with liberty of expression and liberty of the press, because the concept of truth is ethereal, it is subjective, so to demand the truth, whose truth will it be? The official truth? Your truth or mine?"

On Monday, La Prensa published an analysis comparing the law actually proposed by the Lobo Sosa government to the existing legal code. They found an inserted passage in the first article giving the government the right to regulate the content transmitted for the "protection of the ethical principles and cultural values of society".

What the government can demand is framed entirely in vague and lofty-sounding language, that nonetheless falls into the debatable terrain Dumas noted in the C-Libre model law:
“In regard to the content of transmissions... these should be subjected to the regulations, parameters, policies, dispositions and administrative rulings that for reasons of social interests shall be established in conformity with the law".

In other words: the government can say that you shouldn't broadcast stories about any topic it thinks would be against "social interests".

And if a broadcaster does violate this clause, the new law is ready, having established a new basis for formal sanctions if media "promote lack of respect either for the reputation of someone, or weakening of national security, public order, public health or the fundamental rights and liberties of infancy, childhood, and adolescence.” The fines approved would rise from a maximum of 500,000 lempiras in the present law (about $25,000), to 3% to 5% of the gross income of the enterprise.

Added to the call for a Regulatory Commission on Programming, the new language would put the government in a position to impose its perspective on what programming would be in keeping with government policies and views on ethics and values.

Whatever else that might be, it is not a free press.

But then: Porfirio Lobo Sosa doesn't like a free press. 

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