“Journalists strengthen democracy and work to inform citizens. They should have access to all necessary biosecurity equipment to work during this emergency, but this is not the case”, explains journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of a state of emergency, journalists and social communicators are providing essential work to allow society to stay informed and make full and free decisions. If, as Honduran civil society claims, “the crisis in Honduras did not arrive with the Coronavirus", then the need for holding those in power to account is now fundamental in order to mitigate the virus of disinformation. These organisations recognise that monitoring state responses to the virus and their impacts on the population, as well as denouncing possible violations of human rights and abuses of power, is vital. In this vein, international experts from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) have reminded states that they must promote the right to “freely seek, receive, and share information” during the coronavirus pandemic. All this within a context of emergency, which also calls for restrictions following “principles of proportionality” put in place to preserve the right to life and health.
In spite of this important role, various journalists have said that “talking about how the pandemic is being handled in Honduras means putting your life at risk”. “In the west of the country, while handing out food aid, several soldiers intimidated people they did not want to provide with aid. When a social communicator showed them that this was illegal, the soldiers became enraged”, social communicators from the region explained in the virtual forum “The Situation of Freedom of Expression in Latin America in the Context of COVID-19”.
Journalists, at risk
The Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre) has registered at least 23 attacks against journalists and social communicators since the beginning of the emergency and the suspension of constitutional guarantees. Among other incidents, C-Libre highlights theft of inform ation, freezing of bank accounts, censorship, arrests carried out by police forces, and actions that threaten the lives of journalists covering possible violations of human rights. Similarly, in April, the Association for Democracy and Human Rights (ASOPDEHU) revealed through the Network of Journalists and Social Communicators of Santa Bárbara, that three social communicators were physically assaulted and detained for several hours by police forces while covering a peaceful protest demanding increased control over vehicle access to rural communities. According to the network, the social communicators’ work equipment was also confiscated and all material documenting “police abuses against the community” was del eted.
Although the most recent executive order (PCM-045-2020) authorises the media to conduct their activities under the quarantine, Roxanna Corrales of the Voice of Zacate Grande community radio explains that, “we social communicators do not receive official recognition. We conduct our work through telephone calls with community leaders, and it is often hampered by poor signal and the lack of internet”. On many occasions, they do not have the necessary personal protective equipment. “Independent journalists in particular do not have the resources to even buy masks… some of them are literally dying of hunger, as they have no way to earn a living,” Dina Meza explains in reference to the precariousness of work within Honduran journalism.
Elsewhere, “access to public information is limited, as it is all managed through national radio and television channels,” adds Iolani Mariela Pérez, a journalist with Radio Progreso. On 13 May 2020, the Permanent Commission on Contingencies (COPECO) was the subject of a complaint before the Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP) for refusing to provide information related to funds that had been disbursed during the health emergency. Furthermore, the digital publication Pasos de Animal Grande reports that the verification of information has halted entirely because the IAIP offices are closed, and it is likely that “information requests will not be resolved until the state of emergency has ended”, Meza explains.
More complications with the Penal Code
The situation faced by the press calls attention to the fact that the structures to guarantee freedom of expression and protect journalists were already weakened before the current health emergency, as recognised by the United Nations.1 In fact, over the last five years, at least 21 journalists have been sued, one of whom has been in prison for over a year on accusations of defamation. The situation could worsen even more with the introduction of the new penal code on 25 June. According to international organisations like Artículo 19, the code “criminalises the act of journalism, restricting the right to information and freedom of expression”.
In its study and analysis of the legislation, the National Anti-Corruption Council claims that the new penal code relies on penalisation to punish the dissemination of ideas and information, classifying them as slander and libel. The crime of libel (art. 229) can be punished with a fine worth between two hundred and five hundred days’ wages if the claim was made publicly, and one hundred to two hundred days’ wages if the claim was not made publicly. The crime of slander (art. 230) will be punished with six months to one year in prison and a fine of two hundred to one thousand days’ wages. In short, as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warns, the inclusion of these crimes in the new penal code, among other articles, represents an attack on the exercise of freedom of expression. As a result, the Office is calling for a revision of the code, following “recommendations from universal and Inter-American human rights mechanisms”.
Safeguarding an “ecosystem of free information” (Intervention of Rapporteur Edison Lanza in the Webinar ‘COVID-19: How to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press) begins with recognising journalists and social communicators as a vulnerable population with basic needs. As Dina Meza asserts, “many people find themselves in a dilemma, where they can keep working or remain in a miserable situation”. Today more than ever, it is necessary to guarantee the physical, legal, and emotional wellbeing of journalists and social communicators, because “human health does not just rely on easy access to the health system, but also on access to accurate information”.