An interview with Fr Ismael Moreno, Director of Radio Progreso
Fr Ismael Moreno, affectionately known as Melo, is a Jesuit priest, human rights campaigner and the Director of Radio Progreso. He is pictured leading prayers at an ecumenical vigil outside the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Radio Progreso is a Jesuit radio station based in El Progreso, Honduras. The station is internationally recognized for its role advancing human rights, promoting peace, supporting community-based communication initiative, and advocating for environmental protection across Honduras. Radio Progreso has been broadcasting since the 1980’s and has been involved in numerous community mobilization efforts in support of Indigenous people, Afro-descendants, peasants, women, and youth, both in Honduras and across Central America.
Honduras has been mired in a series of human rights and democratic governance crises since 2009, when then-president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in widely denounced coup. High profile corruption cases, weakening institutions, and impunity followed. The country is presently one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, human rights defenders, LGBTQ activists, and environmentalists[i]. Latent discontent in the country erupted in late 2017 following a disputed and highly controversial presidential election that ultimately saw Juan Orlando Hernandez, the incumbent president, elected. The situation sparked mass demonstrations and violent state repression[ii][iii][iv].
Radio Progreso has been at the forefront of the post-election movement to call for transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights in Honduras. Fr Ismael Moreno, Director of Radio Progreso, spoke with Sean Hawkey during his most recent visit to the country.
Sean Hawkey: How do you assess the current human rights situation in Honduras?
Fr Moreno: ‘We need to have a firm understanding of what’s behind the current moment, [behind] this situation. There are systemic issues [to be addressed]. The institutions of this government do not guarantee human rights. The rule of law is subject to arbitrary decisions of a small group led by Juan Orlando Hernandez who have control over the three powers of the state (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches). [That means that the protection of] human rights depends on the will of the government team, and not on the institutional [and legal] order that should protect human rights.
The precariousness of human rights here is that it is [ultimately up] to the people in charge of the Honduran regime. The defence of our human rights depends on how much the President’s team likes us, or rejects us.
For example, if the Department of State of the United States, warns Juan Orlando Hernández that the human rights of particular people should be protected, their rights [will be] protected, temporarily. However, the human rights situation is still precarious [because there is no system in place to protect people’s rights]. It doesn’t depend on the rule of law.
I was talking to a representative of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and she told me that she spoke to the President, and [to] the Minister for Security, and asked for my human rights to be respected. That means that my human rights will be respected, but not because human rights per se are respected here, but because the current situation is one where there is arbitrary protection of people’s rights because of political pressure.
The situation for us, human rights defenders, while Juan Orlando Hernandez is in power, is [one of] permanent and growing danger.
César Silva, reporter for UNE TV, has recently been attacked by armed forces and prevented from working. Silva is famous for breaking a huge story on a multi-million dollar theft of money from the social security by members of the current government. UNE TV is the last TV station to report from the perspective of the opposition and is facing daily difficulties including having their cable signal, internet and electricity cut off. The police behind César stopped him from approaching Congress, where he is authorised to work.
Sean Hawkey: What is the role of the media in the current crisis?
Fr Moreno: Media in Honduras is intimately linked to the groups who have power. In fact, power in Honduras is ultimately expressed through the capacity to control the media. The well-established national media in the country are associated with the five [most] powerful groups that exist in the country. Those are Grupo FICOHSA, Grupo Atlántida, Grupo Dinant, Grupo Terra and Grupo Karim. These groups bring together the 17 most powerful groups in Honduras, the 17 most powerful surnames in Honduras.
The media - TV, radio and the printed press- normally follow the script [set by these powerful interests] that [says] that they shouldn’t [get anywhere near the interests] of those groups. [The media in Honduras] ultimately expresses the interests of these powerful groups.
So, the media in Honduras is extremely conditioned by the owners, who are part of these economic groups, and who have more power than any government. They are the real government, and they have the ability to veto any sort of candidacy that could affect their interests. These are the five groups that were behind the coup of 2009, these are the five groups that are behind the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernandez, and these are the five groups that have the power of veto over any candidate that [even remotely resembles] Manuel Zelaya. Manuel Zelaya represents a threat to these five powerful groups.
These five groups are tightly linked to the embassy of the United States of America. For the government of the United States, Honduras is of geopolitical [importance], though they have no interest for what life is like in the country. They are wary of political instability. They prefer alliances with [established] politicians, even if they are tainted by corruption and are responsible for human rights abuses.
The media here, in many different ways, try to hide the reality that people live, try to hide the extreme differences between wealth and poverty in Honduras, and that the wealth is in so few hands. And they try to hide the repudiation of this [inequality] by the majority. And they try to maintain a situation that favours investments by the five groups and the United States.
The media here, in essence, abuse freedom of expression. They work against the role of the media, which is to inform, generate informed opinion and generate a culture of participation and coexistence and peace.
Sean Hawkey: How does the media and the powerful groups behind it exercise this power?
The big media are the property of these sectors of power. So, for media that aren’t following the script- the ones that have relationships with human rights defenders and with the opposition, and that are [beyond] the control of the government and these five powerful groups- there is a five step process that is sharply adhered to.
The first step is to ignore them. For us [at Radio Progreso], who have a different point of view than the government’s, or who question the government, we’ll never be invited to a TV station to give express our view. They’ll never run a story on who we are and what we do. We are ignored.
When, for different reasons, we can’t be ignored, they will twist information about us, on what we do, they will stigmatise us, they will discredit us. For example, they won’t talk about what we do or say, but they will call us rebels, revolutionaries. They’ll say that we stand in the way of development, or they’ll say that we are linked to organised crime, or that we have old ideas that [are incompatible] with modernity. They stigmatise us, they discredit us.
If that doesn’t work, they’ll try to co-opt us, to bribe us in many different ways. It can be with money, but not necessarily with money. It might be through recognitions, invitations to participate in bodies or events that deal with human rights, to go to five-star hotels. All of this is to make journalists [linked] with the opposition feel like they belong there.
When that doesn’t work then they try to criminalise us, which is the fourth step. When discrediting us doesn’t work, trying to buy us off doesn’t work, and we can’t be ignored, then they criminalise independent media. That’s why the Penal Code has been reformed, to enable accusations of terrorism and treason.
If none of that works, then they go to the fifth step which is assassination.
Sean Hawkey: How has this affected Radio Progreso?
We’ve been ignored, but they can’t ignore us completely. They’ve tried to co-opt us and buy us off. Last year they tried to give me the government prize for human rights, I would have been part of their game if I’d accepted it. That hasn’t worked. They’ve tried to stigmatise us, they’ve produced posters [with supposed links to organised crime for example]. Attempts have been made to criminalise us. They have sabotaged our transmission tower in Tegucigalpa. And now we are trying to avoid that last step.
Photos by Sean Hawkey https://www.hawkey.co.uk/index
[i] Human Rights Watch. 2018. World Report 2018: Honduras. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/honduras
[ii] DW. 2018. “Honduras military clashes with protesters over president’s re-election”
[iii] Reuters. 2018. “Honduran president sworn in amid protests after election chaos” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-honduras-election/honduran-president-sworn-in-amid-protests-after-election-chaos-idUSKBN1FG0NL
[iv]Sandra Cuffe. 2018. ”US-trained police are hunting down and arresting protesters amid post-election crisis in Honduras”. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2018/02/20/honduras-election-protest-tigres/