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.'

Rodrigo Abd/AP
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.

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."

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.

On Sunday, John Biehl, who is the OAS Special Adviser, said that four members of their five-person team, including two Americans, a Canadian, and a Colombian, were sent out of Honduras by plane. "A high-ranking official told us we were expelled, that we had not notified [the interim government] that we were coming," Mr. Biehl, a Chilean, who was allowed to stay, told reporters.

The team was attempting to set up a visit by OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza. The interim government's foreign minister, Carlos Lopez, said they were denied entrance because they did not give advance warning of their arrival.

Mr. Barahona, the resistance leader, called the moves to turn back the OAS and take the media, including a television station in favor of Zelaya, off the air as "fascist." "It's a regime that's repressive and disrespectful of other delegations," he says.

The beef with Brazil

Micheletti also butted heads with the Brazilian government over the weekend, threatening undefined consequences if Brazil does not turn Zelaya over to authorities or grant him asylum in ten days. The threat comes after Micheletti, promising that he would not raid the embassy, said last week that Zelaya could stay there as long as he wished.

The warning was dismissed by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His government "doesn't accept ultimatums from coup mongers," he said.

Police and soldiers have surrounded the embassy since Zelaya's return, which they insist is for the safety of the people. But they had also cut off water and electricity, among other harassment that was condemned Friday by the United Nations Security Council. The Council "called upon the de facto government of Honduras to cease harassing the Brazilian Embassy" in a statement.

Could Micheletti's moves backfire?

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultancy based in New York, says that the move is a further attempt to control the situation, and that a security argument can be made. But, he says, it will likely backfire. "If the deadline passes after 10 days, and he doesn't do anything, he is exposed as a toothless tiger, which will undermine his credibility," Mr. Farnsworth says. "Or if he is prepared to take action, that is a farther escalation of the issue. He's put himself in a box."

Micheletti has taken a hard stand since assuming the presidency June 28, the same day that Zelaya was ousted. In the face of international criticism and cuts in aid he has refused to reinstate Zelaya, maintaining authorities will arrest him on charges of treason and abuse of authority.

Patience, for many Hondurans, is wearing thin.

"Right now every move by Micheletti only makes the resistance grow," says Zelaya supporter Wilfredo Paz. "[Micheletti] has the economic, governmental, and military power, but the power of the people has been with Zelaya.¨

Most in the country say they just want peace. Already deaths have mounted – 10 according to Zelaya supporters and three according to the interim government. Wendy Avila is one of the victims. Her sister-in-law Delmis Espinal, speaking at Ms. Avila's funeral Sunday, said she didn't take sides in the political crisis until tragedy struck her family, even though she says now she believes Zelaya's return to power is the best solution. "We don't want any more deaths. We want a peaceful result," Ms. Espinal says.

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