It seemed like a typical day at Radio Globo in Tegucigalpa, which supports ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya. The office bustled with reporters and assistants, and broadcasters took listeners' calls on the nation's political crisis. There was just one problem: the station was off the air.
The station and the television channel Cholusat Sur were both shut down by Honduras´ interim government as part of an emergency decree last weekend that put severe limits on civil liberties.
But Radio Globo is soldiering on by transmitting over the internet at a private home, the latest example of Latin American media using new technologies and social media to find a way around govermment censors. In Venezuela, opponents of President Hugo Chávez have used Facebook and Twitter to call for rallies against him – and blogs have created a space for alternative view points that have been stifled in the local press.
Radio Globo director David Romero says the station has over 400,000 listeners online, four times its regular following. "It is frustrating the government," he says, laughing. "They can´t stop us."
Other radio stations have also been picking up their internet coverage and airing it. But loyal listeners are still frustrated. "It´s like I lost a family member," says Maria del Carmen Nunez. Her twin sister, Maria Rosario Nunez, has no internet in her home. She says she listened to Radio Globo programs while doing the dishes or ironing, and relied on it to find out where protesters are meeting. "They want us deaf, mute, and blind."
Press freedom questioned throughout Latin America
The decree that shut down Radio Globo and Cholusat Sur were the latest in a series of strikes on press freedom in Latin America. The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) held an emergency meeting in September over concerns that some governments in the region are increasingly using intimidation, verbal attacks, and legal measures to stifle the media.
"There are some dark clouds in media freedoms," says Christopher Walker at Freedom House in New York. And while outright closures are still an exception to the rule – and Latin America's media remains vibrant when compared to the Middle East or parts of Africa – in some countries the space for open dialogue is shrinking, he says.
The Hondura's closures came on the heels of the three-month anniversary of Zelaya´s ouster. The decree also restricted the right to assemble and gave the government the right to close media outlets that it considers to be disturbing the peace. The emergency decree has been widely condemned within Honduras and the government, led by Roberto Micheletti, has promised to revoke it, though has yet to do so.
Even those opposed to Radio Globo´s pro-Zelaya stance criticized the new decree, with conservative papers and the national press association condemning it in editorials and statements. The government maintains that its decision to shut the outlets on Monday was for the safety of the country, since Radio Globo was airing messages by Zelaya calling for an insurrection. But Miguel Calix, an independent analyst and columnist in Tegucigalpa, says that the security argument is out of proportion to any real threat, and the impact on civil liberties and human rights will reverberate for years to come. "Only despotic presidents limit freedom of expression," he says.
Outside the office of Radio Globo signs in thick pen read: "It is not Radio Globo nor Canal 36 that is calling for an insurrection" and "The press is the artillery of freedom of expression."
This is not the first time the station has been closed, says Mr. Romero, the station director. Troops and police shuttered the station upon Zelaya´s ouster too. Mr. Romero jumped out of his office window to escape, breaking a shoulder, he says. This time, just after 5 a.m. on Monday, a convoy stormed the station again. Romero then escaped via a new route he set up in anticipation – rope and ladder. He bears rope burns as proof.
Police: station was inciting violence
Inspector Daniel Molina, spokesperson for the national police, says that authorities acted under orders from the government to close the station because it was inciting violence.
Romero disagrees. Yes, they were giving a voice to Zelaya, he says (they have reporters in the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya is holed up). Yes, they were calling for massive protests to help restore Zelaya to power, he says. "But they are shutting us down because they do not like what they hear," he says.
Radio Globo is not alone within Latin America in its attempt to be heard. In some cases, stifled press comes from within, as is the case in Mexico where journalists are censoring themselves because of threats from drug gangs. Journalists are under similar pressures in places like Colombia and Peru, says Jake Dizard, a Latin America specialist at Freedom House.
Participants at the IAPA meeting said that freedom of expression is under threat in several countries, from Ecuador to Argentina. Most under fire have been those working in Venezuela, where nearly three dozen radio stations were forced off the air recently (with more closures pending) for a series of licensing issues. Chávez, for his part, denies that the closures are an effort to stifle dissent. He says he is working to open community media outlets so that the people can be heard without being filtered by media conglomerates.
For some in Honduras, it is ironic that the Micheletti government is borrowing a tactic from Chávez, whom it opposes. "They criticize Chávez in Venezuela, but then they do the same in our country," says Saul Serrano, a broadcaster for Radio Globo. "What exactly are they seeking to do? They just want to maintain power."