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No end in sight for crisis; voices of dissent, particularly ousted president's supporters, threatened and harassed

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 24 September 2009 - Ousted President Zelaya's return to Honduras supported by the Brazilian government signals a growing regional crisis and a worsening human rights situation. ARTICLE 19 warns of further deterioration and insists that the conditions required for free and fair elections in November are not present in Honduras. The international community must insist on the elections being postponed until guarantees can be provided for an open, safe and pluralistic debate, involving all sides of the political spectrum and allowing all media to report freely and without pressure.

After many unsuccessful attempts over the past three months, ousted President Zelaya managed to return from exile to Honduras on 21 September. He has found refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa and is seeking to negotiate the terms of his return to power and/or politics. In response, the head of the de facto government, Roberto Michelleti, has threatened to arrest Zelaya and has imposed a nation-wide curfew indefinitely. Honduran soldiers and riot police are surrounding the Brazilian Embassy and have taken over the entire neighbourhood.

President Michelleti has continued to insist that the presidential elections planned for 29 November will go ahead. Yet, voices of dissent, particularly those supporting ousted President Zelaya, are subjected to threats and harassment. Human rights defenders continue to face numerous obstacles and dangers in their daily work. Polarisation of the media is worsening, resulting in the scarcity of objective information and adding to the climate of insecurity and confrontation. Peaceful demonstrations are repressed with excessive use of force.

Harassment against Media

The overall conditions for journalistic work and the media are deteriorating, while the numbers of social and political confrontations are increasing:

- Since the return of President Zelaya, the only two media outlets openly opposing the coup, Radio Globo and Canal 36, have been unable to broadcast due to constant power cuts and possible jamming of their signals. In early September, the de facto government brought a criminal defamation lawsuit against the director of Radio Globo, David Romero

- Meanwhile the pro-Michelleti newspapers, El Heraldo and La Prensa, have reported constant threats against their reporters

- The situation of the media in the provinces is worsening quite rapidly according to reports by ARTICLE 19's partner in the country, C-Libre. For instance, Radio Estereo 1, a local radio station based in the western region of Honduras, was shut down by the armed forces on Monday and allowed to reopen on Tuesday under the strict condition not to broadcast any information related to President Zelaya and his supporters

- Canal 11 and the cable company Cable Color, both owned by the same person, have been subjected to tremendous pressure from CONATEL, the telecommunications regulatory body, and the tax authorities, which are trying to shutdown the channel and their transmission facilities on the grounds of a series of administrative omissions. Canal 11 has managed to maintain an objective editorial line regardless of the constant threat by both Michelleti's and Zelaya's supporters. Cable Color provides transmission services to Radio Globo and Canal 36, which according to Jesus Torres, director of the cable company, could be the reason for the threats.

Human rights defenders

The political and legal implications of the crisis in Honduras continue to pose a number of obstacles for the work of human rights defenders in the country:

- ARTICLE 19 has gathered many testimonies of human rights defenders alleging surveillance of their offices and homes, as well as threats

- The media supporting the de facto government has accused human rights defenders of harbouring hidden political agendas. Some of the most prominent members of the human rights movement in Honduras have been accused of receiving money "to destabilize the constitutional order"

- Although the Inter American Human Rights Commission granted precautionary measures to a number of human rights defenders immediately after the coup, they have not been implemented

- Local human rights activists have explained to ARTICLE 19 that the government authorities are refusing to investigate the alleged human rights violations that are brought to their attention. Their strategy is to continue documenting the cases as best as they can, with the view of presenting them formally before the authorities once the crisis is over.

Political Expression and Demonstrations

The police have targeted demonstrations supporting ousted President Zelaya since 28 June. In its report following a recent visit to Honduras, the Inter American Commission documented the excessive use of force and the unjustified restriction to freedom of expression. For instance, on 5 August, the police repressed a peaceful demonstration that took place in the National University campus. Many of the professors and students had been actively protesting against the de facto government and provided shelter for people coming in from the rural areas to join in the protest movement. ARTICLE 19 received reports that the demonstration was dispersed violently, through the use of truncheons and tear and rubber bullets gas fired directly into the crowds of protesters. The National Police agents arrested a large number of students. There are allegations that the police and armed forces are subjecting women in detention to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence.

Conditions for the Presidential Elections

According to the testimonies and information gathered by ARTICLE 19, the present situation in Honduras is not conducive to holding free and fair elections. The current conditions include: overall restrictions on freedom of expression, curfews and restriction of the freedom of movement; lack of access to the media for all political positions and political parties; the overall absence of security; and a range of commercial and legal pressure on the media.

In a 'Joint Statement on the Media and Elections', issued in March 2009, the Special Rapporteurs from the United Nations, the Organisation of American States, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights established that "free and fair elections are possible only where the electorate is well informed and has access to pluralistic and sufficient information". The document goes on to say that states must "put in place measures to create an environment in which a pluralistic media sector can flourish." They add that the media must be free to report on election-related issues.

Only with a diverse media environment can we ensure that all viewpoints and political perspectives are aired during the upcoming elections. In order to have free and fair elections in the country, the media should be allowed to report freely and should also be free from fear of reprisals, such as threats, physical attacks and unduly limiting legal restrictions on freedom of expression. It is clear this is not the case in Honduras.

ARTICLE 19 Recommends:

1. All sides of the conflict should commit to a peaceful and swift resolution to the conflict. Freedom of expression must be central to this process and agreement. There cannot be a resolution to the conflict without recognition of the right of all to express their opinions, and the right of the media to report freely

2. The international community must insist on the elections to be postponed until the guarantees can be provided for an open, safe and pluralistic debate and for free and fair elections throughout the country

3. All sides to the conflict should refrain from targeting and threatening journalists

4. All forms of censorship must be prohibited. The interim government, the police and the armed forces must refrain from censoring the media or journalists, and all acts of censorship should be investigated

5. The interim government should put in place effective systems for preventing threats and attacks against the media, human rights defenders and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, and for investigating all attacks which have occurred since 28 June, bringing those responsible to justice and compensating victims

6. The rights of Human Rights Defenders to move inside the country and investigate allegations of abuses must be respected. Their ability to report impartially and objectively on such abuses is dependent on their ability to access the locations.


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