Letter from Honduras: The Villatoro Case

Thousands marched in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in May to protest against violence aimed at journalists, along with corruption and insecurity in the country.

by Rick Rockwell

The case of Alfredo Villatoro, the assassinated journalist who headed the news operations at the country’s most popular radio network HRN, has galvanized the journalism community in Honduras.  (For more background on the case, please see:  “Honduras and the Rule of Law” and “Media Danger Zone:  Honduras on the Edge.”)

Some say the case will invoke change.  Others say it makes no difference in a country where the body count is high for journalists, activists, and just about everyone else.  (Honduras has the highest per capita murder rate in the world according to the United Nations.  One leading Honduran television journalist remarked recently it is absurd and horrible that his country has a worse rate of killing than Syria where a revolt is underway.)  But certainly, the topic provokes conversation and seems to be the top item to discuss whenever journalists gather in the country.

This author assembled these observations during a recent trip to Honduras, meeting with journalists, leaders of NGOs, civil society groups, and attending a conference for journalists co-sponsored by the U.N., the European Union and the Colegio de Periodistas of Honduras (a type of association for the country’s journalists).  Some of the journalists who were interviewed asked not to be identified (always a telling and interesting request when it comes from a journalist) while others had no such fears.

A recent dispatch from the Committee to Protect Journalists seems to prod the country’s journalists onward:  backing a recent march last month that put journalists in the streets with thousands of supporters asking for more security in the country but also asking why it has taken so long for Honduran journalists to organize and speak out.

Some of the answers come from Jose Luis Sanz, a Spanish journalist working for El Salvador’s noted internet publication El Faro.  He spoke at the recent journalism conference in Honduras.  Sanz said he interviewed numerous journalists in San Pedro Sula, the country’s commercial center and he noted the journalism community was still polarized over the coup of 2009 that removed President Manuel Zelaya from power.  The coup hangs like a dark cloud over the country still; it too is ever present in conversations, although it is surprisingly absent from almost all the political discourse on the dozens of talk shows that populate Honduras’ growing cable television and radio universe.  “When the media are silent, the streets speak,” one journalist shared this old phrase to explain the large amount of political graffiti decorating the country’s capital of Tegucigalpa.  Most of these messages condemn the coup, oppose the current government of Pres. Porfirio Lobo, and support the far left party, the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP by its Spanish acronym; the party also calls itself the Libre or Free Party).

“The media here create a type of unreality,” said Manuel Torres, a longtime leader in the journalism community and one of the investigators and authors of the reports filed about the media and the coup for the Honduran Truth Commission.  “There is a silence in Honduras,” he added because those who report on the media or corruption or narcotics trafficking or levels of violence or who use investigative techniques to explore politics, those journalists receive threats or worse.  They are met with violence and death.  In Torres’ view this repression has taken an ideological turn, although the violence cannot be tied directly to the government or the state.  The inability of the government to confront security problems with gangs and narcotics cartels has made it obvious to these and other groups that they are free to use violent means to control the national conversation.  The weakness of the central government opens the door to this further instability.

Cesar Rivera an editor at El Heraldo, one of the country’s newspapers says this is one of the worst climates for free expression he can imagine.  The level of violence makes every journalist pause.  “Yes there is self-censorship,” Rivera said.  “You question every day what you can publish.”  Indeed, publications in San Pedro Sula have shuttered investigative units and openly admit they will not cover some subjects until the violence subsides.  However, Rivera says the new spirit among journalists, due to the marches and rallies in support of free speech, gives him hope.  “I’m optimistic we are walking a path out of these bad times,” he said.  “It’s a struggle.  Every day is a struggle.”

But the important aspect is the journalistic community keeps struggling forward, perhaps stronger in stronger ways than they have at any time in the past.  And now that the world is paying a bit more attention, maybe they will get more support and pressure for policies that can restore security.  But using the example of Colombia as one country still battling violence spawned by the Drug War, but seemingly winning now, Honduras certainly has a long sad path ahead.

(The photo is from Iran’s PressTV and is in the public domain.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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3 Responses to Letter from Honduras: The Villatoro Case

  1. Frank Smyth says:

    Great piece, Rick

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