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Could Honduras media crackdown backfire?

Roberto Micheletti's interim government shut down two media outlets today after it issued a new decree to suspend freedom of speech if it 'disturbs the peace.'

By Mike FaulkContributor, Staff writer / September 28, 2009

A journalist, carrying a video camera, walks among soldiers and police officers outside Globo radio station after its closure in Tegucigalpa, Monday. The new interim government's measures permit authorities to temporarily close news media outlets that they say attack peace and public order.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

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Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and Mexico City

Soldiers in Honduras shut down two media stations loyal to ousted President Manuel Zelaya, after the country's interim government gave itself new powers, by decree, to suspend freedom of speech and ban protests if they "disturb the peace."

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The move comes as Honduran interim president Roberto Micheletti expelled a team of Organization of American States (OAS) members seeking to reignite dialogue between the government and Mr. Zelaya, who returned last week and has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy ever since. Mr. Micheletti on Saturday gave Brazil a 10-day ultimatum to decide whether it will grant Zelaya asylum.

To his foes, Micheletti is increasingly isolating the Central American nation, in the throes of the region's worst political crisis in decades after Zelaya was arrested and thrown out of the country June 28. And his hard-line measures also risk causing a domestic backlash and damage the tiny nation's fragile democracy for years to come. But tactically, many observers say that the moves are key to ensuring that the security situation does not deteriorate.

"Micheletti, if given the opportunity, would become a dictator," concedes Octavio Sanchez, a lawyer in Tegucigalpa and constitutional expert who supports Zelaya's ouster as constitutional. But by curbing protests, even in the face of widespread international condemnation, he says the Micheletti government is keeping Honduras safe, for now. "[Micheletti] is curbing violence.... Zelaya wants violence, it is the only way for him to come back to power."

This is not the first time pro-Zelaya media has been taken off the air since the crisis erupted. But the Micheletti government says it is not curbing freedom of expression for political gain. In an announcement broadcast nationally, the government explained the new decree as a way to "to guarantee peace and public order in the country and due to the calls for insurrection that Mr. Zelaya has publicly made."

Fighting words?

The media crackdown comes as Zelaya called for a massive "anniversary" march today, to mark three months since Zelaya, who had defied court orders not to carry ahead with a vote to inquire about convening a constituent assembly, was ousted. His critics say he was seeking to scrap presidential term limits; he denies this.

"I call on you to mobilize throughout Honduras, and that everyone who can come to Tegucigalpa to fight in the final offensive," Zelaya called upon his supporters in a statement on Radio Globo, which was raided today.

His supporters say their protests are not inciting violence but seeking to restore democracy. Juan Barahona, a leader in the pro-Zelaya movement, says supporters of democracy will continue to protest peacefully, even as their rights are violated by arbitrary arrests and violence. "The Honduran people have taken to the streets," he says.

OAS denied entrance

The three-month standoff heated up last week after Zelaya sneaked into the country, after almost three months in exile. It prompted countries to call for new rounds of dialogue, after previous efforts, centered on a plan by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, have thus far failed. Many suspected that Zelaya's return would put more pressure on Micheletti to negotiate, particularly on the key demand that Zelaya be reinstated to office. But Micheletti seems to have dug in his heels. After saying last week that the OAS could return to help broker a solution, he turned four members away Sunday.

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