In Honduras, a media crackdown

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — At the Channel 36 TV station in this sweltering capital, the buzzing, hectic atmosphere of a news network has been replaced by an ominous silence.

The doors are held shut with huge industrial padlocks, bored-looking soldiers stand on the sidewalk and the journalists are nowhere to be seen.

Since taking power Sunday after a coup against elected-president Manuel Zelaya, the new administration has shut down a major TV station, several radio stations and a newspaper. It has also cut off signals from some international networks, including Venezuela-based Telesur.

Meanwhile, those media outlets still running heap praise on the regime of Roberto Micheletti. “Defending the Constitution,” blears the headline in one newspaper reporting the consolidation of the new government. “Zelaya Out, We Want Peace,” says another.

Such control of the media is perhaps a predictable development from a government that came to power after the elected head of state was forced out of his home at gunpoint and taken on a plane to neighboring Costa Rica.

But the media battle over the Honduras coup also reflects larger news-related issues as leftist governments have risen to power in the region.

Longstanding commercial networks controlled by wealthy families have often had head-on collisions with leftist leaders, who accuse them of undermining their governments.

In reaction, business interests accuse stations controlled by leftist presidents of demonizing the rich and dividing nations along class lines.

“The media across Latin America has become much more polarized in recent years. There is more of an atmosphere of saying, “You have to be with us or against us,” said Elan Reyes, president of Honduras’ journalist association.

In power, the left-leaning Zelaya had a fiery relationship with the dominant TV channels in Honduras, which are controlled by some of the nation’s richest families.

When they criticized him for raising the minimum wage by more than 50 percent, saying he was clobbering business, he lashed back, alleging that they were part of an “elite group” of oligarchs who want to keep the poor downtrodden.

Fighting for control of the airwaves, he set up a government Channel 8, which celebrated his achievements and loyally showed him traipsing through poor villages hugging corn growers and banana workers.

“The big channels had always focused on the lives and opinions of the rich. Channel 8 started looking at the stories and struggles of poor people,” said Cesar Fernandez, a TV producer who worked with the station.

The privately owned Channel 36 also gave favorable coverage to Zelaya, a friend and ally of its owner.

Within hours of the coup, soldiers had swept on Channel 36 installations and cut its signals from the air.

In the days since, the government Channel 8 has radically changed its tune, and has been pumping out messages all day calling on Hondurans to take to the streets in demonstrations in favor of the new regime.

“Honduras needs you participate now!” says one message flashing on the screen. “We have a legitimate government supported by all Hondurans,” says another.

The battle lines over TV coverage here were strikingly similar to the south, in Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, a staunch Zelaya ally.

Chavez also accused commercial TV stations of being pawns of the rich and said they backed an attempted coup against him in 2002.

In 2007, Chavez refused to renew the license of Radio Caracas Television Internacional, the nation’s most popular station, accusing it of irresponsible anti-government coverage.

He has also helped form the cable group Telesur, which provides left-leaning coverage across the region.

On Monday, troops in Honduras stormed into a hotel and detained a Telesur crew as its members were conducting a live broadcast. The crew was released after several hours, although transmission of the channel in Honduras was soon cut off.

Pro-Zelaya supporters say that without any television or radio networks supporting them, it is harder to organize protests.

However, they say the movement is coordinating through word of mouth and text messages and they are planning huge demonstrations on Saturday when Zelaya has promised to return to Honduras.

With the government saying it will arrest Zelaya, many fear violent confrontations.

“The TV stations are sold out to the new regime. But we don’t need them to get out on the streets,” said Rony Orellana, a 24-year-old teacher who was marching for Zelaya alongside beating tropical drums. “They cannot keep fooling the people for ever.”

Read more on the coup:

Tension rises as coup plotters refuse to budge

Analysis: Unanimous condemnation highlights new US stance in the Americas

Honduran coup stuns friends and neighbors