The Press in Honduras Confronts Violence

This article was written by Ana Arana and Daniela Guazo for Fundación MEPI. This is the third part in a series about crime reporting in Honduras. Read the first and second installments for more information.

Journalists protesting in Honduras. "Murderous bullets will not silence us". Photo by Lilian Caballero shared by Esther Vargas on Flickr under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Journalists protesting in Honduras. “Murderous bullets will not silence us”. Photo by Lilian Caballero shared by Esther Vargas on Flickr under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Why has superficial crime reporting that relies on bloody photos and spreads, gained some much ground in Honduras? Few journalists and analysts understand it. But MEPI's content analysis and interviews with reporters and editors drew out multiple reasons: little access to timely official reports by the authorities,  a lack of government-media implemented safety mechanisms to protect journalists, and fear of retaliation,  if stories appear to have too much context and insight.

To elucidate the danger, one reporter told us, “A few years ago, in Tegucigalpa there was a bandit who was well known and was called The Black Cat.  The man controlled all drug sales in Tegucigalpa. If any reporter identified him in a story, he would go to the news outlet and demand to know who wrote the story.”

Many newsrooms forbid their journalists from reporting in low income neighborhoods controlled by violent youth gangs around San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, The media also shuns reporting trips to the departments of  Olancho, Atlántida, Puerto Cortés and Colón, centers of drug trafficking activity—most stories related to these territories appear in news briefs. “It is difficult to report on crime in our country,” said one editor in Tegucigalpa. “Relatives of crime victims do not want to talk to the press. And for our safety, we don't follow up crime stories.”

A debate on how to stop the media from using graphic pictures and reporting on crime has caused much discussion in Honduras.  “(Their reporting style) is related to the lack of training,” said a member of the Honduran Human Rights Commission who did not want to give his name because he was not authorized to talk on the record.  “They use bloody pictures to sell more newspapers.  They don't care.”

A poll conducted by DLA Consulting Group in March of this year backs this assumption.  The survey found that four out of 10 persons polled said that they were left “in fear, nervous and concerned” after reading the Honduran press.

Business groups and civic leaders have also complained about the press and the reality they paint of Honduras in their stories. Early this year, the Mexican pollster Mitofsky rated President Lobo, number 18—next to the last place—in a poll that ranked 19 presidents across the world. Lobo's approval rate is down to 27 percent of all Hondurans.   Lobo capitalized on the debate over too much violence in the media. He proposed to regulate content in the media, and issue sanctions if a news outlet published news that were deemed to promote crime, obscenity and any other element that attempted against “morality and good manners.” The law proposal was strongly criticized by the Honduran media and international freedom of the press organizations. Media owners reacted quickly and in May, representatives of all mayor newspapers and broadcasters agreed on a self-regulation code of ethics that would forbid the news media from publishing photos and broadcasting video that promotes “immorality and violence.” The President still accuses the media of making a profit out of promoting violence.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Last july, body parts of a man which appeared to have been partially burnt, floated on a small lagoon near sugar cane fields in San Pedro Sula.  It was the body of Aníbal Barrow, a television commentator who had been kidnapped by armed commandos two weeks earlier, with his family and a driver.  The driver and family members had been freed earlier by the gunmen.

Barrow was a close friend of President Lobo and was the second journalist with known links to the President murdered violently in the last two years. In May 2012, police found the body of Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, also a television broadcaster who had been kidnapped two weeks earlier.  His body was found dressed with a police special forces uniform.  Nobody understood the uniform and the message.  A few days before Villatoro was kidnapped, the police had taken away bodyguards that had been assigned to the reporter because of death threats.

Sound investigations on why reporters are getting killed have not been reached on any recent case.  “We have examined some cases deeply but can never reach any conclusions,” said one editor. Part of the reason many journalists are afraid to dig too deep in the cases of their dead colleagues is because they fear that in these cases, as in others in Honduras today, the authors could come from political, journalistic or police sectors, who may be operating in tandem with members of organized crime.

Official Communiques

A reporter's job is made more difficult because of a lack of government information that could explain the wave of violence. According to reporters and editors in both San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the Coroner's Office and local and national police agencies do not provide statistics or comprehensive reports. The lack of official information is due to various reasons. One is the alleged collusion between members of the government and police sectors with organized crime, as reported in the U.S. State Department's Human Rights report as recently as last year.

But safety is also a concern for police officers and  government officials. More than 120 police officers have been killed violently in the last three years, according to the Human Rights Office and police reports. Even top government officials run into trouble if they delve in too deep.  In December 2009,   six months after former President Zelaya was deposed, the then anti-drug Zar, Arístides González was gunned down in Tegucigalpa just days after he announced that the government was going to take measures against several clandestine landing strips it had discovered in the department of Olancho in northwestern Honduras. González had ordered an investigation of a group that was working with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. The order to kill him was carried out by a local Honduran trafficker.

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