Saturday, July 04, 2009

Newswatch: Reported media clampdown in Honduras -- a troubling development

Nicholas Casey of The Wall Street Journal, in his July 3, 2009 article, "Honduras Takes Control of Some Media," has reported on a further explosive ingredient in the Honduras mix:
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduras's provisional government, while trying to persuade the international community that its overthrow of its president was democratic, is being criticized for taking control of a number of media outlets since the coup.

The country's Channel 36, run by a close associate of expelled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, was shut down following Mr. Zelaya's ouster and remained off the air this week, with only a blank signal showing up on Honduran televisions.

Channel 8, a state-owned network that had also supported Mr. Zelaya, went off the air on Sunday and then returned with a new cast of anchors, largely delivering news friendly to the government's interim president, Roberto Micheletti.

Radio Globo, a network that spent much energy criticizing Mr. Micheletti before he took power, remains under military guard, according to its owner, Alejandro Villatoro. When it broadcast the first Honduran interview with Mr. Zelaya Wednesday from exile, in which he was addressed as "Mr. President," soldiers turned off the station's transmitter, Mr. Villatoro said.

Other outlets less closely allied with Mr. Zelaya said they had no complaints . . . .

Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for press freedom based in France, said Wednesday that some stations "have resumed broadcasting but their coverage of the coup is either closely controlled or nonexistent." It also said international news outlets including U.S.-based CNN and Venezuela's Telesur -- which is run by the government of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and strongly supports Mr. Zelaya -- were no longer available on TV stations and could only be seen on the Internet.

In an interview late Thursday, the country's new interim president, Mr. Micheletti, said he had "not the slightest idea," about why soldiers had disrupted Mr. Zelaya's speech. But he said certain measures were necessary to prevent Hondurans from being incited to violence. A call to the Honduran National Telecommunications Commission seeking comment was not returned.

Now, in a de facto or declared state of emergency, it is normal for media to be restrained to a more than usual extent, in the interests of the public good; on the principle that one has no proper right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

Also, while Reporters without Borders reports that CNN etc are not accessible on the broadcast networks, a commenter on the article claiming to be reporting from Honduras remarks:
People say that all we see in Honduras are local news telling us a biased story of the situation, but the media is not saying how CNN is basing most of their news from reporters of TELESUR, a news channel loyal to Chavez. I have been watching CNN since sunday afternoon, which was when electricity and TV were restored. People in Honduras are outraged by the constant news by CNN tellin[g] the international viewers that life and business are not being carried as usual and there has been misinformation inside the country. Totally false, why don't CNN reporters como [sic] to Honduras instead of depending on Telesur or other leftist reporters. Let them go into a restaurant and film how CNN news are being displayed all around We are tired of listening to CNN and CNN in Spanich [sic] portray lies about what's going on in Honduras . . .
It seems likely that CNN etc are accessible on Cable TV, which may be viewed in restaurants etc (as well as in the homes of those well enough off to subscribe -- and, Honduras is one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere) but is not currently extensively broadcast on over the air networks. Also, given that Telesur is Chavez-controlled [Chavez being no mean media manipulator . . . ], Mr Diaz's complaint just above on manipulative reporting that has been broadcast to the world as if it were objective reporting by CNN is not implausible.

As a relevant background note, it is worth looking at the Wikipedia article on Mr Zelaya and his presidency on the subject of media controversies:

On May 24, 2007, Zelaya ordered ten two-hour cadenas (mandatory government broadcasts) on all television and radio stations, "to counteract the misinformation of the news media."[17] The move, while legal, was fiercely criticized by the country's main journalists' union, and Zelaya was dubbed "authoritarian" by his opposition.[18] Ultimately, the broadcasts were scaled back to a one-hour program on the government's plans to expand telephone service, a half hour on new electrical power plants and a half-hour about government revenues. According to the University of New Mexico's electronic bulletin NotiCen, "Zelaya's contention that the media distort his efforts is not without merit," citing reports which gave the public the impression that murder rates were rising, when they actually fell by 3% in 2006.[17] Journalists who have criticized Zelaya's rule have been murdered and harassed.[19] Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the United Nations criticized murders of journalists during Zelaya rule.[20] In 2008, The Organization of American States (OAS) accused Zelaya of imposing "subtle censorship" in Honduras. A study, "Censura sutil en Honduras: abuso de publicidad oficial y otras formas de censura indirecta", was released in September 2008.[21]

In short, the media situation in Honduras has long been in an unhealthy condition, with contentions over media rising to the level where reporters critical of Mr Zelaya seem to have been murdered in the line of service in the past several years. So, there is a complex and delicate situation with known potential for violence.

That does sound like a fairly crowded theatre.

On balance, then, some restrictions on media in a state of emergency are both inevitable and justifiable in the specific interests of public safety and security. Similarly, it is legitimate that a state-owned broadcast network would reflect the voice of the state (especially in a situation where there are other voices that have independent access to the airwaves). But, once that crosses the line to manipulating the public through suppression of legitimate opinion and reporting and/or intimidation of journalists, that would be going dangerously too far. Also, should restrictions be long extended or should they become clearly draconian, that would be a clear sign that the interim [de facto?] government is itself a threat to civil liberty.

In short, these are troubling developments, but as of yet they are not in themselves decisive.

Let us pray that wisdom, justice, truth and peace will prevail in Honduras, and let us learn from the developments of the past few days, that it is ever more clear that we cannot safely trust or take at face value the news and views in our media, or for that matter the statements and declarations of regional and international fora. END

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