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On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the White House released a statement of support by President Obama. He declared his wish to honor “the role of a free press in creating sustainable democracies and prosperous societies,” and pay “special tribute to those journalists who have sacrificed their lives, freedom or personal well-being in pursuit of truth and justice.”
His statement also expressed concern for journalists who are “intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared” and demanded that a “culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.” The statement criticized the governments of Syria, Vietnam, Eritrea, Ecuador, Belarus, and Cuba for their treatment of journalists, and called upon “all governments” to recognize “the vital role of a free press and [take] the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear.”
Was there any mention of Honduras? No, although a demand to ensure the safety of journalists there would have been particularly useful, considering the country’s illegitimate leader, Porfirio Lobo, has presided over a period of a staggering number of murders of reporters.
Dina Meza—a co-founder of the human rights group the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH) and an intrepid journalist—explained the Honduran government’s role in fostering a culture of impunity in a May 3 blog post for Amnesty International:
[W]ith the coup d’etat in 2009, intolerance grew to such an extent that censorship and self-censorship are now the inseparable companions of every journalist.
Since the coup d’etat, 20 journalists have been killed in Honduras. The files on these deaths carry on gathering dust in the drawers of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, impunity tries to silence a story which was never told.
Meza’s work with COFADEH makes her a prime target of violence. Take, for example, the group’s explosive revelation, which Honduras expert Dana Frank cited in this week’s must-read article in The Nation: “More than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed.”
It’s not surprising, then, that just a couple of weeks prior to the publication of her Amnesty blog on World Press Freedom Day, Meza received text messages signed by a group associated with death squad activity, describing the ways in which she would be killed (“We’ll burn your pussy with lime until you scream and the whole squad will enjoy it,” read one. Another told her, “You’ll end up dead like people in the Aguan there’s nothing better than fucking some bitches”). Meza is keenly aware that her reporting on human rights, corruption, and government misconduct could lead to her death, and that the Honduran state has demonstrated a lethal indifference to her fate. As a result, Meza asked in her Amnesty piece whether she and her colleagues should allow this situation to silence them.
“It affects every area of our lives: our families, our social contexts, our lives themselves,” she wrote. “Don’t think that I am not afraid; many times I’ve felt as though fear has soaked through to my bones.”
Despite the environment of ongoing terror felt by journalists there, Honduras was conspicuously absent from the White House’s World Press Freedom Day statement, while Ecuador, of all countries, was denounced. Clearly, this reflects something more than simply a disinterested concern on the part of the Obama administration for press freedoms across the globe: In Honduras, more than 20 journalists have been murdered in the past three years as the government has looked away; in Ecuador, one journalist has been killed since 1992, and even this occurred before current President Rafael Correa took office in 2007, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
There are other stark differences between the two countries.
First, Correa was elected in free and fair elections, whereas the Lobo regime, in Dana Frank’s words, “is the illegitimate progeny of the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009.” (The United States endorsed the fraudulent elections that brought Lobo to power.)
Second, the two countries have distinct postures toward U.S. military interests. Correa declined to renew a 10-year rent-free lease on a U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, which was set to expire in 2009. “We’ll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami—an Ecuadorian base,” said Correa in a rhetorical flourish in 2007. Honduras, on the other hand, has extremely close ties with the U.S. military and now boasts three new U.S. forward operating bases (as I mentioned last week). Dana Frank’s Nation reporting provides further context:
As in the 1980s, when Honduras served as the US base for the contra war against Nicaragua, the country is the regional hub for US military operations in Central America. It received more than $50 million in Pentagon contracts last year, including $24 million to make the barracks at the Soto Cano Air Base permanent for the first time since 1954. Soto Cano has great strategic significance as the only US air base between the United States and South America. Sixty-two percent of all Defense Department funds for Central America in 2011 went to Honduras.
Perhaps it would have been impolitic for Obama to denounce a strategic military partner on World Press Freedom Day, even if the Lobo government oversees a brutally repressive police state. After all, a little over half a year ago, Obama warmly greeted Lobo at the White House (an invitation he could not find time to extend to Zelaya, who visited Washington on six separate occasions after he was illegally ousted). At his October meeting with Lobo, Obama spoke of the Honduran leader in glowing terms, incorrectly asserting that Lobo had a “strong commitment to democracy,” which, in Obama’s words, played a role in “a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.”
There is no question that if the Obama administration pressured the Lobo regime to curb its egregious human rights violations, the U.S. press would report on such pressure, and in turn, shed greater light on U.S. taxpayer-funded abuses in Honduras. Economist and Latin America specialist Mark Weisbrot posed this hypothetical scenario to illustrate the point in November:
Imagine that an opposition organiser were murdered in broad daylight in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador or Venezuela by masked gunmen, or kidnapped and murdered by armed guards of a well-known supporter of the government. It would be front page news in the New York Times, and all over the TV news. The US State Department would issue a strong statement of concern over grave human rights abuses. If this were ever to happen.
Now imagine that 59 of these kinds of political killings had taken place so far this year, and 61 the previous year. Long before the number of victims reached this level, this would become a major foreign policy issue for the United States, and Washington would be calling for international sanctions.
But we are talking about Honduras, not Bolivia or Venezuela.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s silence on the matter has contributed to an effective blackout of reporting on the rapid degeneration of a post-coup Honduras. For example, while a widely distributed article from the Associated Press on World Press Freedom Day referred to the killing of journalists in Mexico, the piece failed to even mention the word “Honduras.” To put things in perspective, since 2006, over 40 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico according to the CPJ. This is roughly the same rate as the number of journalists killed in Honduras over the past three years, but Mexico has over 13 times its population.
Another widely distributed piece by the Associated Press from the same day illustrates the role of the U.S. government in shaping the media’s narrative even more clearly. The article, “Somber World Press Day in Somalia after 5th death,” cites Amnesty research that shows “the Somali government has failed to bring anyone to justice for the killings of at least 28 journalists since 2007”—a similar statistic to that of Honduras. But the AP article also prominently features U.S. criticism of the unquestionably dangerous conditions faced by Somali reporters in the wake of the senseless murder of radio journalist Farhan Abdulle:
The U.S. special representative to Somalia, James Swan, noted that journalists in Somalia in particular must work while battling government efforts to censor information and while knowing that militants or other criminals may target them for what they report. . . . “When governments use fear to suppress criticism they weaken their standing with their own constitutions and the international community,” Swan wrote. . . . Swan said too many attacks on and killings of journalists go unpunished and said the U.S. is committed to working with “responsible” Somali authorities to bring an end to the culture of impunity.
Had the U.S. government expressed comparable concern regarding the killing of Erick Martinez—a Honduran journalist and LGBT activist who disappeared just a couple of days after Abdulle died—the disparity in press coverage between the two murders would have been less pronounced: Two Google News searches using the deceased journalists’ names show an astonishing contrast in the amount of media attention each reporter received. Over 1,000 news articles appeared in a search for “Farhan Abdulle," whereas only 15 pieces showed up in a search for “Erick Martinez." News of Farhan Abdulle’s death appeared in both the AP reports discussed above, various versions of which were hosted on the websites of the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Washington Post, BusinessWeek, ABC News, and TIME, among other outlets. However, not a single article appeared in a major U.S. newspaper in response to the murder of Erick Martinez, who, in addition to his journalism and advocacy, had been selected as a candidate for upcoming legislative elections as a representative of a coalition of parties opposing the Lobo government.
It seems safe to conclude that World Press Freedom Day is little more than a parade of double standards set by the United States, with media outlets serving as willing abettors. If there are any redeeming features to be found in the event, Dina Meza embodies them. While her case has also been largely ignored by the U.S. media, she used World Press Freedom Day to publicize Honduran journalists’ heroic resolve in the face of overwhelming odds. Meza’s lesson can be adapted universally:
“When I see the way information is manipulated and the way the truth is twisted in the corporate media . . . that’s another reason I carry on working as a journalist," wrote Meza. "I have the obligation to make the truth known.”
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, CNN En Español, Truthout, and Upside Down World. He is the author of the new NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which takes a critical look at the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. See also Bhatt's May 24 blog post, "Echoing the State: The New York Times on Honduras."