By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- It was the biggest story in Honduras in years -- soldiers burst into the president's bedroom, dragged him off in his pajamas and bundled him onto a plane out of the country. Hours later, his foes announced the formation of a new government.
Several countries condemned the events of June 28 as a military coup. But in Honduras, some of the most popular and influential television stations and radio networks blacked out coverage or adhered to the de facto government's line that Manuel Zelaya's overthrow was not a coup but a legal "constitutional substitution," press freedom advocates and Honduran journalists said.
Meanwhile, soldiers raided the offices of radio and TV stations loyal to Zelaya, shutting down their signals. Alejandro Villatoro, 52, the owner of Radio Globo, said soldiers broke down doors and dismantled video surveillance cameras.
"They grabbed me and put me face down and put six rifles on me, with a foot on my back holding me down," he said. "It was like I was a common criminal."
Such allegations underscore the one-sided nature of the news that has been served up to Hondurans during the crisis. According to results of a Gallup poll published here Thursday, 41 percent of Hondurans think the ouster was justified, with 28 opposed to it.
The de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti cited such support as he began talks Thursday in Costa Rica with that country's president, Oscar Arias, who has agreed to mediate. Zelaya met separately with Arias, who said representatives of the two men will continue meeting in the days ahead.
In Honduras, though, the country's new leaders, the security forces and the clergy argue that Zelaya's removal had legal justification the rest of the world does not understand. Local media largely "slanted coverage" to favor that position, said Carlos Lauría of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"The de facto government clearly used the security forces to restrict the news," Lauría said. "Hondurans did not know what was going on. They clearly acted to create an information vacuum to keep people unaware of what was actually happening."
Micheletti's spokesman, René Cepeda, and other officials in the de facto government did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Ramón Custodio López, Honduras's human rights ombudsman, who investigates violations of press freedom, said he has received no official complaints from journalists.
"This is the first I have heard about an occupation or military raid of a station," he said. "I try to do the best job I can, but there are things that escape my knowledge."
Custodio added that he thought Honduran media coverage of the overthrow and its aftermath has been "very good."
Elan Reyes Pineda, who is president of the Honduras College of Journalists and is close to many in Micheletti's government, said that during Zelaya's tumultuous tenure, he had antagonized many of the magnates who control the country's biggest companies, including its news media.
Zelaya frequently commandeered the airwaves to deliver rambling speeches, but he also railed against media owners for serving what he said were the interests of "power groups" in Honduras, Reyes Pineda said. "He was in permanent confrontation with the biggest media in Honduras," Reyes Pineda added, "So this was payback."
Among Zelaya's most steadfast opponents, according to journalists here, is the influential entrepreneur Rafael Ferrari, who owns three leading Honduran TV stations and has investments in banking, energy and real estate. Ferrari was not available to comment, but an associate, Nahum Valladades y Valladares, said the media outlets controlled by Ferrari are impartial.
"We have a policy of openness to provide not just the official information, but information from those who are against the government that installed itself constitutionally," said Valladades y Valladares, who is general manager of 18 radio stations and secretary of a media association headed by Ferrari. "We cannot invent the news."
Most, if not all, of the news media here are unabashedly partisan, Honduran journalists say, with newspapers and broadcast outlets allied with political parties and local power brokers.
Eduardo Maldonado, a popular commentator on radio and television, does not hide his allegiance to Zelaya. He said he openly backed Zelaya's efforts to hold a nonbinding referendum asking Hondurans to approve a constitutional amendment on presidential term limits, which sparked the crisis.
The morning of the coup, Maldonado said, he was due to appear on his TV show on Channel 66. Instead, soldiers arrived at the station and prevented him from broadcasting.
"It was a well-prepared coup," he said. "They only allowed the media that were loyal to them to operate."
Channel 66, like other media outlets that were raided, was soon back on the air. But programs such as Maldonado's, partial to Zelaya, remained off the air for days, Maldonado and other journalists said. Maldonado went into hiding.
Zelaya's supporters say that their marches receive scant media coverage, unlike the rallies in favor of the coup, which are advertised on several TV channels.
"The ones that transmit what is really happening here are closed, like Channel 36," said Juan Carlos Valladares, a teacher who was demanding Zelaya's return on a recent day.
Channel 36 was off the air for a week after soldiers arrived at its headquarters minutes after the coup. Esdras Amado López, the station's owner, said he is pleased to be back on the air now. But he remains shaken.
"I am frustrated," he said. "I feel bad because this is my job, this is my dream, and I worked very hard to have this station."