PEN Canada recently published Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity. The report is the culmination of a yearlong partnership with PEN International and the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. The report details how journalists who cover corruption and other sensitive issues increasingly face threats and lethal attacks.
The Honduran journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza was one of the report’s key sources. Since 2006, she has been followed and threatened. In 2013, fearing for her life, she lived in England temporarily as part of a protection program.
In the following Op-Ed, published by PEN International to coincide with the launch of the report, Meza considers the historical background to the current culture of impunity and violence against journalists in Honduras.
When I found out that PEN International, PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law (IHRP) were planning an investigation into violence against journalists in Honduras, I was very optimistic about the results. The report, very accurately entitled: Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity, presents a picture of what is really going on in the country in terms of freedom of expression.
The report reaffirms that there is almost complete impunity in Honduras: barely 20 per cent of crimes are reported and only four per cent of these are investigated, according to state statistics. This lack of investigation is directly related to who is behind these crimes, which is also why investigations don’t produce results.
Over time, impunity and corruption have infiltrated all areas of the Honduran State. In the 1980s it was the National Security Doctrine, implemented by the United States in Honduras, which had to be camouflaged and talked about in terms of (a nonexistent) democracy in order to cover up serious human rights violations. These included enforced disappearances which left more than 184 Hondurans in clandestine graves – their bodies are still sought by their families three decades later. This chapter in our history has never been closed because the protagonists of these atrocities, acting on behalf of the state, were never penalized and their crimes remain unpunished. Many of these state agents are the same protagonists we saw in the coup d’état in Honduras in June 2009. The coup was driven by an oligarchy which has held power through two traditional parties for over 100 years, and was – I believe – backed by the US, with the remilitarization of the country among its aims.
Exercising freedom of expression in a nation where impunity has taken over the country . . . is an act of defiance which carries with it the threat of death.
Now it’s organized crime, drug trafficking and corruption that have found their way into all aspects of state institutions: the police, the armed forces, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the judiciary, the National Congress. This is the information agenda in whose shadow we have to report – it’s as dangerous as having a gun to our heads.
For over a century a privileged class has distributed the national wealth amongst an elite made up of some 10 families who have impoverished most of the Honduran population. These families include corporate media moguls who monopolize radio and television frequencies and print media to define the national agenda. They do not allow any space where people can discuss their problems, since the aim is to censor issues which challenge the status quo.
In Honduras, we journalists have to make decisions when we leave university and enter the job market to practise our profession. The options are limited: either we go into corporate media, where salaries are precarious and there is a controlled editorial line designed to protect the big businesses whose shareholders are also our employers; go into civil society organizations where there are few vacancies; or set up an independent radio or television programme where we have to pay huge sums of money just to get it on air.
Exercising freedom of expression in a nation where impunity has taken over the country as outlined in the PEN-IHRP report is an act of defiance which carries with it the threat of death; it’s like crossing a minefield. In Honduras there is no armed conflict but people do get shot for speaking the truth.
Why are there so many obstacles to investigating crimes and threats against journalists? Because investigations aren’t convenient; this way there are no guarantees of safety for those of us who are still alive.
“What you say today will help you stay alive tomorrow,” one journalist told me when I asked him how he felt about being a journalist in Honduras. This makes it clear that there’s a climate of fear and self-censorship, a concept well defined by this report. Given the lack of response from a State which sponsors impunity and is often responsible for the violence, many journalists have decided to keep quiet in order to stay alive.
I don’t believe the problem of impunity lies with inadequate funding of the Public Prosecutors’ Office, which has the monopoly on criminal proceedings. The nub of the issue is that there is no institutional structure in the country; the little that was constructed within Honduran society in the 1990s collapsed with the coup. These institutions were involved in illegal activity and what remains of them still is, undermining victims’ access to justice.
I have demanded, on countless occasions, to be given the results of investigations into the threats I have faced since 2006, and I have never received anything. There are many excuses, and although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has issued two precautionary measures in my favour, these are never implemented and the vicious circle is exacerbated every time I talk about issues relating to freedom of expression or other human rights.
Why are there so many obstacles to investigating crimes and threats against journalists? Because investigations aren’t convenient; this way there are no guarantees of safety for those of us who are still alive. These are the issues that we journalists need to report on, but each journalist murdered creates more fear and self-censorship. “Will I be next?” is a question you ask yourself every day in journalism.
There are many forms of violence against journalists, which are explained in detail in the PEN/IHRP report. However there is no political will to investigate. Even though, at the international level, the Honduran State undertakes to make all kinds of laws, in practice it’s another story.
I believe this report has arrived at favourable recommendations, which can only be implemented with the support of the international community, so that Honduras can restore its institutional structure. Otherwise the deaths of journalists, and the threats and harassment against those of us who are still alive, will be a story without end.
Dina Meza is an award-winning journalist, human rights defender and author. Meza began her work as a human rights defender in 1989 after one of her brothers, a carpenter who was part of an agricultural collective with connections to the campesino (rural worker) movement, was abducted by security forces and detained incommunicado for a week, during which time he was tortured and accused of being a guerilla. She currently works as a writer for defensoresenlinea.com, the website of the Honduran human rights NGO Committee of Relatives of the Detainees and Disappeared in Honduras (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras, COFADEH), where she is director of digital and alternative media.
This piece was originally published by PEN International. The opinions contained in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of PEN International.