The Deadliest Place in the World for a Journalist
This mini-documentary looks at the critical journalists in Honduras that continue working, continue asking tough questions, despite having lost 15 colleagues in less than two years. Produced by Jesse Freeston.
This mini-documentary looks at the critical journalists in Honduras that continue working, continue asking tough questions, despite having lost 15 colleagues in less than two years. Produced by Jesse Freeston.
JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: Since the 2009 military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras has been undergoing a drastic shift to the right. The public education system is being rapidly privatized. Rivers and forests are being concessioned to foreign investors. Basic labor protections are being removed. Laws that were in place to give land to poor farmers have been declared unconstitutional. For women, the morning-after pill has now been made illegal. Increased tourism development on Honduras’s Caribbean coast is threatening to displace many of the country’s black communities. The military is still deployed throughout the country, and just received an enormous budget increase. And some of that money will go to finance Guardians of the Homeland, the name for the military’s new youth program for children from poor neighborhoods. And recently a brand-new free trade deal was signed with Canada on a visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
STEPHEN HARPER, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: And today’s visit should be taken as evidence of our earnest desire for a stronger relationship with Honduras, one based upon a commitment to human rights, democracy, security, and prosperity.
FREESTON: These fast changes, made possible by a military coup, are controversial in Honduras. But marches and other forms of protest are routinely attacked by police, and organizers continue to be assassinated on an almost weekly basis, such as the September assassination of Emo Sadloo, one of the most recognizable members of the resistance, who hadn’t missed a single march in the more than two years since the coup. Dissent is almost less welcome on the pages and programs of the country’s corporate media, which provide very little to no space for debate. For those journalists and commentators that do try to break the silence, there are serious consequences. Cesar Silva is one example of a journalist who refuses to go along with the regime. His nightmare began the morning of the coup.
CESAR SILVA, JOURNALIST (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They took my shoes, my belt–everything that normally happens to a prisoner. That’s when the people began to arrive and pressure them to free me. They didn’t want to let me go. An officer with the last name Tomas tells me that I’m arrested for being a communist, a rebel. But there was so much pressure from the people outside–they even threatened to set fires and tear down the gates. There were only six police officers–not enough to continue holding me. So the people freed me. From then on I was blacklisted by the police without charges of any kind, except political ones like sedition. Then a general called me and said, "Look, we know where you are. We don’t want to capture you. In fact, we want you to join us." I told him, "Thank you very much for your offer, but my decision is a firm one, because I do this work to save us from what you are doing right now, stomping the people with your boots. I’m completely against that. I know I can’t hide. You know where I am. But I won’t work with you."
FREESTON: Silva was fired from his position at the state-run Channel 8 News, and joined the massive protests against the coup. One week later, he witnessed the killing of Isis Obed Murillo, when the 19-year-old was shot in the head by the Honduran military.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): He’s already dead, Cesar! Cesar! He’s already dead!
FREESTON: Honduras’s largest newspaper chain digitally removed the blood from Obed’s picture and said the military had only used rubber bullets. Other media outlets simply ignored both the 400,000-person march and the military’s use of live ammunition. Silva swore to break the silence.
SILVA: Radio Globo and Channel 36 were cleaned out and taken off the air. That’s when we found other ways to keep working. We continued filming and editing with whatever equipment we could find. We burned it onto disks and projected it in the neighborhoods like little newscasts, except they weren’t really newscasts, just the day’s images, filmed and stuck together with rough narration. But the information was getting to the people. We became an imminent threat, because despite the silence of the corporate media and the shutting down of media sympathetic to the resistance, they couldn’t stop the homemade street journalism. That was working quite well.
FREESTON: That’s when the regime began its attack on Silva and his team.
SILVA: I was attacked in front of the people, in front of the TV cameras, even. They tried to capture me right in front of the National Congress. I resisted and was lucky enough to escape.
FREESTON: Then his colleagues Walter Trochez, who was in charge of distributing the reports, and Renan Fajardo, who did the video editing, were both found dead just ten days apart.
SILVA: Walter Trochez was captured and brutally beaten. He successfully escaped, but three days later they found him again. The police said it was a suicide. I’ve never heard of anyone who shoots themselves in the street. It wasn’t a suicide. How is he going to shoot himself in public? They never found the weapon, but he died from bullet wounds. Renan was found in a box, strangled to death with a coat hanger. Nobody commits suicide like that, either. But the police said that both deaths were suicides. The truth is they were murdered by either the police or the military.
FREESTON: The day after Fajardo’s funeral, Silva himself was kidnapped and questioned for roughly 24 hours before being released. The regime’s attack on Silva’s street journalism team wasn’t reported by the corporate press in Honduras or internationally. On the very same day that Silva was kidnapped, France’s Channel 2 was reporting on the uprising in Iran. During the report, they repeatedly showed a photo from Honduras.
NEWS PRESENTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This image shows police fleeing protesters armed with rocks.
FREESTON: French media watchdog Arret sur Images publicized the error. The channel apologized the next day, but without even mentioning the Honduran resistance.
NEWS PRESENTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): One of the photos we showed in our report yesterday actually had nothing to do with the current events in Iran. Even if the general spirit of the report was not spoiled, it was a mistake, and we apologize to you.
FREESTON: With zero protection coming in the way of international attention, Silva fled Honduras on New Year’s Eve 2009.
SILVA: I’m the principal provider for my family, for both my mother and my kids. It was a very difficult situation, and I decided to come back to Honduras. Fortunately, Radio Globo had just launched Globo TV, and they hired me immediately. I’m lucky, because the more you’re on the air, the more visible you are, the less the risk of being murdered.
FREESTON: In 2010, Pepe Lobo came to power through phony elections, and much of the world declared that the Honduran crisis was over. On October 5, 2011, US President Barack Obama welcomed Lobo to the White House for the first time.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: Today also begins a new chapter in the relationship between our two countries. Two years ago, we saw a coup in Honduras that threatened to move the country away from democracy. And in part because of pressure from the international community, but also because of the strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.
PEPE LOBO, HUNDURAN PRESIDENT: We have opened and continue opening space for participation so the Honduran people can express themselves.
FREESTON: In the period since Lobo took power, Honduras has led the world in murdered journalists per capita. This small country has seen 15 critical journalists assassinated in the 19 months under Lobo’s rule. That stat does not include the stories of journalists like Pedro Brizuela, whose daughter Claudia was shot dead in her home on her 36th birthday in front of her two young children. The Lobo regime has repeatedly said that the murders are unrelated to the victims’ work as journalists, usually attributing the violence to drug trafficking. But a September 2010 confrontation between Radio Globo journalist Luis Galdamez and business magnate Adolfo Facusse demonstrated how casual the practice of killing journalists has become. Facusse owns a number of banks and sweatshops. He’s the president of the Honduran Chamber of Industrialists and a key supporter of the coup. He is also widely accused of stealing millions of dollars from the government treasury during the 1980s and ’90s. The video shows Facusse refusing to respond to Galdamez’s questions about the stolen money.
ADOLFO FACUSSE, HONDURAN BUSINESSMAN: You don’t have the balls to be a businessman! We businessmen have the balls to invest.
LUIS GALDAMEZ: To invest? Or to suck from the tit of the state?
FREESTON: Seconds later, as Facusse walks away, journalist Oscar Calona from corporate radio giant HRN approaches him and whispers the following:
OSCAR CALONA, HRN RADIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Send someone to kill him.
FREESTON: The incident went unreported in the Honduran press, and Calona was neither fired nor reprimanded for asking that a fellow journalist be killed. As for Galdamez, he continues to report for Radio Globo, even after surviving a drive-by shooting on his home. In May, regime leader Pepe Lobo hosted Honduras Is Open for Business, a conference that the government said was a way to promote Honduras’s new post-coup, business-friendly laws to foreign investors. It proved as a great litmus test for how news works in Honduras. Hundreds of mainstream journalists sat around for hours in a catered tent waiting for government leaders to make official statements, while an opposition protest outside went largely unreported.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Look at that officer, shooting video to later find and kill us.
FREESTON: /'[email protected]'mE.ro/, president of the National Youth Resistance Front, helped organize the protests.
(SUBTITLED TRANL.): The youth are here to show our firm condemnation of these kind of events, where the oligarchy continue selling off our country to the highest bidder.
FREESTON: The protesters labeled the event Honduras Is for Sale.
(SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We’re not going to let them continue dominating us, selling our resources to people that don’t even have their families here, who didn’t grow up here. The oligarchy made this possible through the laws they’ve passed since the coup, to make it easy for these people to come here and buy up massive tracts of land, fresh water, mountains, forests, etc.
FREESTON: Inside the press tent, Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati held a brief press conference. Canahuati’s family owns both the country’s largest sweatshop chain, as well as the country’s largest newspaper chain. It was the Canahuati paper that digitally removed the blood out of Isis Obed’s photo.
MARIO CANAHUATI, HONDURAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Honduras is not for sale. We are loaning Honduras for a period of time, for the benefit of our people.
FREESTON: Outside the conference, police attacked the protest. Numerous members of the resistance were injured. But there’s no footage of the attack, because the only videographer there to film it, Globo TV’s Uriel Rodriguez, had his footage stolen after he was beaten unconscious by riot police. This cell phone video shows members of the resistance rushing Rodriguez to hospital to have his head stitched up. We spoke to Rodriguez a month after the attack.
URIEL RODRIGUEZ, VIDEOGRAPHER, GLOBO TV (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is the fourth time I’ve been attacked like that. And one time, filming police shooting teargas into a teachers union office, they told me they were going to kill me and send my mom a picture of the body. I keep working because of my social conscience. And other camerapeople can’t get the shots that I get. Nobody from the corporate channels is going to show up and get these shots.
FREESTON: After television, Hondurans get much of their news from radio, and the radio dial is almost entirely controlled by three Honduran families, all supporters of the coup. One exception is the chain of five community-run stations that serve Honduras’s Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coast. Alfredo Lopez is the founder of the country’s first community radio, Radio Faluma Bimetu, which in the Garifuna language means sweet coconut radio.
ALFREDO LOPEZ, FOUNDER, RADIO FALUMA BIMETU (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We are transmitting without a government permit, which I say here publicly because Rafael Ferrari alone has more than 50 stations, Andonie Fernandez of Audio Video Inc. has more than 40 stations in Honduras, and we Garifuna, a group of 46 communities on Honduras’s Caribbean coast, have no legal path to get a frequency permit.
FREESTON: In January 2010, Radio Faluma Bimetu was set on fire in the middle of the night. No police investigation was ever opened.
LOPEZ: We received a series of threats leading up to the fire because we publicized the post-coup regime’s crimes and our campaign against the elections. This brought us a lot of hostility in the community because of the division fueled by the coup-plotters themselves that are trying to develop mega-tourism projects in our communities. After the fire, we launched a fundraising campaign, and we got the radio back up and running in just one month with a much stronger signal, to make it clear to the coup plotters that it’s not that easy to break our will, that when confronted with violence, we respond with work and determination.
FREESTON: Then, in April of this year, fire was set to Lopez’s family home. He and his family narrowly escaped the midnight attack.
LOPEZ: We were shocked because it means that they’re threatening children now. But just imagine this criminal investigation. If they found nothing after the burning of the radio, what can we expect now from these corrupt authorities that don’t care about anything, who at times appear to be working with the criminals in our community that are interested in the privatization of our land? Meanwhile, the radio’s primary work in the community has been to publicize their atrocious actions.
FREESTON: Despite the threats to his life, Lopez continues his work at the radio. And just two weeks after the arson, he was in attendance at the one-year anniversary of the community radio project in Zacate Grande, on Honduras’s Pacific Coast. Just like on Lopez’s Caribbean coast, the residents of Zacate are also being threatened with expulsion to make room for tourism development, and their radio station, the Voice of Zacate Grande, has been their way of informing the community about the resistance.
(SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The people united will never be defeated!
FREESTON: They too have been targeted for repression, and the story of their struggle has been spread through a popular song as performed by 12-year-old /'al.do.'ru.bi.jo/.
(SUBTITLED TRANL.): The oligarchy is so terrified / That they sent cops to our radio station / But we’re still on the air / What courage and bravery! / Listen to ‘the Voice of Zacate Grande’ / Sending the world echoes of hope / Our pain wants to be joy / Long live the people that rise up!
FREESTON: None of these attacks on community radio are ever reported by the corporate media, so it can be difficult to keep track of it at all. That’s where people like /di.na.'me.sa/ come in. 'me.sa works as an investigator with the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared, a Honduran human rights defender. She files her investigations online, as well as hosting a weekly radio broadcast, Voices Against Amnesia.
DINA MESA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Our show was shut down during the coup. We were on a coup-supporting station, and they cut us when we began publicizing the atrocities of the coup.
FREESTON: The program is back up, this time on Radio Globo. But Mesa says that finding a frequency is just one of many obstacles to her work.
MESA: When there’s a homicide, the police contaminate the crime scene. Evidence is removed from the scene. For example, when there are shots fired, police often hide the shells. They also hide prisoners. When we go to the station and ask for people, police deny that they’re even there, and we have to pressure them to let us in and see them. So we have contamination of the crime scene, as well as manipulation of information.
FREESTON: In April, we witnessed firsthand the actions of the police. During a late-night meeting with resistance members in San Pedro Sula, word arrived that founder and director of Radio Uno, Arnulfo Aguilar, had locked himself in his own home to avoid a group of hitmen waiting for him outside. He told us by phone that the police refused to send help.
(SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I’m heading over there right now!
FREESTON: We quickly drove to various police stations, where we were told a series of excuses for why the police wouldn’t intervene.
(SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They said they can’t send a patrol car because the Chamelecon station has already sent somebody to Radio Uno. They’re lying, aren’t they?
FREESTON: A small caravan was quickly organized to go rescue him ourselves. By the time we got there, the death squad had left, and Aguilar had escaped to a nearby gas station. The most recent journalist to be gunned down in Honduras was Aguilar’s coworker, Medardo Flores, shot dead in an ambush on September 8. We spoke to Aguilar back in April at the radio station, where he also runs a media and communications school for youth. Aguilar says that the radio was targeted for its approach to journalism.
ARNULFO AGUILAR, DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER, RADIO UNO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I look for information that allows me to reveal something. In Honduras, TV programs trick the people by saying they are investigators. Same with the "investigative series" that appear in the newspapers. But they don’t reveal anything at all. To say that there is crime in Honduras is no revelation when we’re in a country without jobs, housing, health care, libraries, where there’s nowhere to play sports, where most radio and television content is doing us harm. On television? Soap operas. On the radio? Soccer, religion, and traditional politics. Where journalism organizations and the journalists themselves are totally corrupt. In Honduras, to say "I’m a journalist" is honestly the same thing as saying "I’m corrupt". In the same way that if you say "I’m a lawyer", people will immediately confuse you with a thief or a stick-up kid. Or when you see a judge, a prosecutor, a cop, or a soldier, it’s like looking at the worst murderers and thieves. So we have to refound the entire republic. And journalism that is done with education, with culture, coming from a bunch of different outlets, could be the salvation of the society. And that’s what we’re trying to do at Radio Uno. Our transmitters have been sabotaged three times in the two years under the coup. One of the cruelest attacks was September 15, 2010. They attacked children, women, the elderly, the students, the teachers. They gassed us in the street, the front porch, and in the lobby. It was all destroyed.
FREESTON: The attack was part of a larger operation by police and military to break up a concert by the antiregime rock band CafÃ© Guancasco that was going on a couple blocks away from the station. The band’s singer and guitarist, Pavel Nunez, says that it’s not just journalists that are under attack, but anyone who speaks out. And the repression, he says, is a sign that the resistance is slowly winning.
PAVEL NUNEZ, SINGER AND GUITAR PLAYER, CAFE GUANCASCO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We learned something very important, and it cost us. We had to go through hurdles and repression of all kinds. We learned that power isn’t what the oligarchs had taught us. It’s not just the presidency or the Congress that you have to win through elections. The people now understand that those marches in the street are power. We have affected the economy. If you look at the biggest newspapers in Honduras, they went from having 500 pages to just 20. We’ve hit their bottom line. The people aren’t eating their fast food anymore. The people don’t watch the TV channels that supported the coup anymore through their media of mass destruction. That is construction of power.
FREESTON: In August, CafÃ© Guancasco saxophone and clarinet player Jairo Lopez was brutally beaten with metal pipes by several unknown men while on his way to a rehearsal.
NUNEZ: Our music is how we reach the people, and the resistance has embraced us as such, not like the rock stars that work with corporations that supported the coup that you see on the big billboards. We are thought of as just another group of comrades in the streets giving a word of encouragement and maybe raising the consciousness of youth that might not have a path to follow or anything to build. That’s what CafÃ© Guancasco is, the resistance in a different trench, the music trench.
FREESTON: So what happens when the musicians, the journalists, the protesters, and all other forms of expression are repressed?
SILVA: When nobody is speaking, the walls speak. The walls have become a grievance board, the walls of truth here in Honduras.
FREESTON: Throughout Honduras’s 106,400 square kilometers, you’ll find a series of nasty nicknames that will haunt the coup plotters wherever they go, replacing the traditional flowers and confetti–the price for ruining the working people of Honduras.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Erase me coup-plotter
AGUILAR: And you guys help him. Watch what he’s doing. What kind of mic is this?
(SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Lapel mic.
AGUILAR: Lapel mic.
FREESTON: From Honduras for The Real News Network, I’m Jesse Freeston.
TEXT ON SCREEN: No to Pepe the Puppet. Yes to a New Constitution.
End of Transcript
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.