Honduras Partner Profiles: Dina Meza
This post represents what we hope will be a new and regular feature from the Honduras IT for the WfP blog. As you surely know, there is a general scarcity of English-language press on Honduras. What little there is generally covers the biggest news coming from the country, often at the expense of allowing readers to understand the way major news events fit into the overall situation. Living and working here, we see the extraordinary work being done in resistance to the increasing repression in Honduras on a day-to-day basis, much of it going completely unmentioned in US-based press reports on Honduras.
We want to use this series to highlight the work of our partners, and pass on what they have to say about the role of US policy in their country. We hope that it will also serve as a sort of “introductory series” on the incredibly complicated and deep-rooted problems of US policy in Honduras, and the current situation here.
We kick off the series with Dina Meza, a journalist who is a stalwart champion of freedom of the press in the face of increasing criminalization and censorship of media in Honduras. Dina has been recognized by PEN International, Amnesty International, Index on Censorship and Reporters without Borders for her work as a journalist and human rights advocate. Currently, Dina is the driving force behind the creation of Honduras’ PEN Center. In 2013, she wrote “Reign of Terror,” an in-depth report on threats to Honduran journalists for Index on Censorship’s magazine. In 2014, she was named one of Reporters Without Borders’ “100 Heroes and Heroines of Information.”
We conducted our interview with Dina outside the courthouse in El Progreso, where she was covering a civil hearing of a police officer accused of viciously beating the reporter Dunia Montoya while Montoya was covering a protest in September of 2015. She spoke with us about the state of freedom of expression and journalism in Honduras, the role of US foreign policy, and her prescriptions for what US citizens can do to support journalists in Honduras.
Dina publishes regular investigative reports at Pasos de Animal Grande, and works tirelessly to document threats and attacks against journalists in Honduras. Her work at Pasos is absolutely essential – required reading for us – and we highly recommend keeping up with her work there.
Witness for Peace: To get started, Dina, what is the general situation for journalists and journalism here in Honduras?
Dina Meza: Well, it’s a very complicated situation. Freedom of expression is under serious attack. We’re seeing different patterns of attacks being carried out. For example, the cruelest patterns would have to be the murders of journalists and members of the media, then threats, harassment, and the use of the judiciary as a form of repression, through charges of defamation and slander. And with reforms to the Penal Code in Article 355b, which concerns hate speech and ‘acts of terrorism,’ they’re now criminalizing the journalistic voice in the sense that we can’t speak about certain subjects. They’re putting a muzzle on the entire press.
But it also has to do with the way they want to push us into the official agenda of the President of the Republic, Juan Orlando Hernández, in the context of his re-election. They want our reporting to be in complete agreement with what he says, in agreement with what he wants. For us to say, “oh, the government’s agenda is fantastic, it respects human rights,” when in reality, the situation with freedom of expression is that journalists and alternative media don’t have it.
They monitor our Facebook pages, our social networks, our e-mail. They intercept our communications, they track us, threaten us, and conduct surveillance on us when we’re doing our journalistic work.
Here in El Progreso, where we’re doing this interview, I’ve been talking with colleagues who say that in the Sula Valley, which includes El Progreso and San Pedro Sula, there are members of the alternative media who are being seriously attacked. There are around 50 people who are at every protest and demonstration, and they have been covering social activities in this area, so when there’s police repression, then what?
Beatings, as in the example of Dunia Montoya, whose trial we’re accompanying here. She’s still suffering from a laceration to her cervical column, she has problems with her arm, and this was ordered by higher-ups in the police and military. We imagine they got their orders to repress people from the highest levels, which could be the Ministry of Security or the President.
There’s a context here, of social struggles like with the tolls we’re being forced to pay. (Ed: The installation of tollbooths on the main highways of Honduras has been met with concerted protests. In a country with such immense poverty, the tollbooths – which are often built on the only available route between major points – represent a very real restriction on freedom of movement.] There’s also a lot happening here in terms of labor rights, the rights of workers in the maquilas, among other subjects, all of which provoke major repression of the press.
And we see it at different levels in different areas of the country – in Tegucigalpa, we have a press that is controlled, the majority of whom are corporate media who make up most of the news media in Tegucigalpa, but who have been part of the governing elite in this country for more than a hundred years. Fortunately, alternative media has emerged: digital newspapers, community radio, alternative radio. In my case, the digital publication pasosdeanimalgrande.com, which focuses on human rights and freedom of expression.
All in all, it’s a context in which a lot of journalists and media are significantly threatened when we don’t back up the official agenda.
WfP: What do you think are the U.S. policies that affect the situation here?
DM: Sure, well, the military presence the United States has in our country, and the interventions that it’s done throughout our history – in our country, this has a huge impact because, on one hand [the U.S.] is saying there should be a free press but on the other, they’re financing the police and military forces that are repressing expression in Honduran society. This includes the right to free expression and information that journalists and other social communicators are entitled to.
WfP: Well, as you know, our supporters are always asking what they can do to help.
DM: Well, one of the most important things would be for the United States to stop intervening in my country, to get rid of all this money that encourages impunity, to stop supporting the security forces – both the police and the army – that are committing serious human rights violations. We have more than a 96% impunity rate, so it’s pretty tricky. Crimes against journalists simply go unpunished. Even if at some point they come to light publicly, no actions are taken against the perpetrators.
So I think it’s important that the U.S. doesn’t come here saying that they support the protection mechanism – which is supposed to provide protection to journalists, media, and human rights defenders – the U.S. is providing money for that, but we still have impunity. That is to say, we journalists and media representatives don’t want to be under this supposed ‘protection’ while the source of the threats remain active. [Ed: the protection mechanism is an OAS program that charges the Honduran government with providing round-the-clock security to certain individuals considered to be at high risk, mostly journalists and human rights defenders. There is an inherent contradiction in asking the same state that is threatening those people to also provide security against the threats. In January, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa announced a joint initiative with Freedom House to fund the mechanism. A staggering number of people under this official protection have been injured and killed since it went into place, including Berta Cáceres.]
If they don’t investigate those who issue threats, or those who are killing journalists, the situation around impunity is absolutely going to continue. And so that money that the US – which is a very small portion out of everything they’re doing in this country, not to mention a very tiny return that we’re getting – that money isn’t doing anything but promoting impunity in Honduras.
WfP: So finally, you’ve already said that your site is pasosdeanimalgrande.com. Can you talk a little bit more about what you’re doing there?
DM: Yes, we’ve formed an organization with various people called the Association for Democracy and Human Rights, and we have this digital newspaper called Pasos de Animal Grande, but we’re also doing legal accompaniment for those are having problems related to freedom of expression. We’re accompanying students who’ve engaged in social protests and been repressed, journalists who are erroneously charged with defamation and slander, or journalists as in the case of Dunia Montoya who have been savagely beaten by police and who are seeking justice.
So we do these types of things, in addition we give self-defense and security training to journalists and other media so that anyone who is exercising their right to free expression can do so in a framework of self-protection, both in terms of security around communications but also in their personal security. And we also monitor international treaties and pacts which Honduras has signed regarding freedom of expression, and to which it is not in compliance. So, we’re doing investigations and research, we’re positioning our newspaper as a vehicle for denunciations, and at the same time journalists who are being censored because of what issues they’re tackling can be published on pasosdeanimalgrande.com.