Several Honduran judges have unanimously rejected complaints made against five journalists for “damaging his reputation”, by the director of the Honduran telecommunications company, Hondutel, Marcelo Chimirri.
The judges ruled that there were insufficient legal reasons for a case to be brought against Renato Álvarez and Rossana Guevara, of Televicentro, Melissa Amaya and Juan Carlos Funes, of Radio Cadena Voces, and Carlos Mauricio Flores, editor of the daily El Heraldo.
The journalists had published articles relating to alleged fraud involving international phone calls revealed by the Mexican daily El Universal. Judges in San Pedro Sula, North-West of Honduras, were due to rule shortly on a suit against Nelson Fernández, managing editor of the regional daily La Prensa.
The National Human Rights Commission told Reporters Without Borders that this legal decision constituted a “victory for freedom of expression in the face of a wave of intimidation aimed at abolishing the right to the truth and to information.”
“We knew that we had committed no crime, we have published news on a piece of information having repercussions abroad and which should be the subject of a thorough investigation,” Melissa Amaya told the worldwide press freedom organisation.
1.10 - Shooting, threats and lawsuits all used in attempts to gag press in September
Reporters Without Borders condemns a month-old wave of press freedom violations in Honduras including a shooting attack on TV journalist Geovanny García on 7 September, threats against newspaper reporter Martín Ramírez after he wrote about organised crime, and lawsuits by the head of the state telecommunications company Hondutel on 28 September against six journalists who repeated corruption allegations.
“The press freedom situation continues to be fragile in Honduras, to judge by the acts of intimidation, threats and lawsuits in the past month,” the organisation said. “Unfortunately, the authorities have given no serious evidence of a determination to combat impunity and abuse of authority.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We obviously hope the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will urge the government to provide adequate protection to the two journalists who have been the victims of threats and attacks. But giving them protection does not relieve the authorities of the requirement to conduct a broader investigation into organised crime and its ramifications. And the defamation lawsuit against the six journalists must not be allowed to encourage self-censorship. The courts must guarantee press freedom.”
García, who works for local TV station Hondured, came under fire in Tegucigalpa from two men on a black motorcycle who had followed him from the station’s headquarters. After intercepting him, they fired seven shots at his car. García ducked but one of the shots grazed his hand. García had criticised alleged corruption in road surfacing contracts issued by the Department of Public Works, Transport and Housing.
The same day, Ramírez’s daily newspaper, La Tribuna, published an article by him about Honduras’ violent criminal gangs, known in Central America as “maras,” and their possible connections with the police. The article did not have his byline, but the police revealed that he was its author, and thereafter he and his family began getting threatening phone calls.
The National Human Rights Commission submitted a formal request to the IACHR on 24 September, asking it to take measures to protect García and Ramírez.
The lawsuits filed by Hondutel chief Marcelo Chimirri on 28 September named Renato Álvarez and Rossana Guevara of the TV station Televicentro, Melissa Amaya and Juan Carlos Funes of radio Cadena Voces, Carlos Mauricio Flores, the editor of the daily El Heraldo, and Nelson Fernández, managing editor of the newspaper La Prensa. They are accused of “attacking his reputation” by repeating the Mexican daily El Universal’s allegations of embezzlement within Hondutel.
A report in El Universal claimed that Hondutel was embezzling part of the proceeds from international telephone calls, resulting in significant losses for the Honduran treasury. The six journalists just repeated what El Universal had alleged. A US organisation, the Arcadia Foundation, reportedly has evidence of the embezzlement, and of Chimirri’s involvement.
Álvarez told Reporters Without Borders the aim of lawsuits is to intimidate the press and deter it from repeating foreign media revelations in future. “Never in 30 years of working as a journalist have I seen so much intolerance of criticism and media independence,” Álvarez said. “They want to silence us so that we no longer talk about corruption in the public administration.”
In the past five years, more than 20 journalists have been sued by persons claiming their “reputation” had been attacked.