Smear campaigns, the growing threat against journalists in Honduras

Wendy Funes, Honduran journalist and director of the news outlet Reporteros de Investigación, learned from friends that her photograph was circulating on Whatsapp as part of an alleged journalistic investigation that accused her of belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang. The image, which went viral, showed an alleged investigation by the news outlet InSight Crime published by the Argentine website Infobae, which reported an alleged link between human rights organizations in Honduras and these criminal groups.

Insight Crime, which was credited with the investigation, denied the publication. "This is FALSE. InSight Crime has not published any such information nor does it have any evidence to that effect. We condemn these false attacks," the outlet wrote on its Twitter account.

For Dina Meza, a journalist and human rights defender in Honduras, the situation was a bit different. While she was not linked to a criminal group, her name appeared on a kind of criminal poster titled "Human Rights Corruption Networks Honduras Vol. 1," which went viral on Whatsapp and then on networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In the poster, different people appear connected to each other, allegedly led by the country's former president Juan Orlando Hernández, currently in a New York prison convicted of drug trafficking.

This is not the first time that Funes or Meza have found themselves in the middle of attacks to delegitimize their journalistic work. Both, as well as many journalists in Honduras, have had to practice their profession in a hostile environment that includes threats, intimidation, harassment, among other aggressions.

However, these smear campaigns appear to be a planned strategy to particularly silence journalism that has to do with allegations of corruption or misconduct of state authorities. Although without ignoring the situation in previous governments, Funes and Meza have seen a coincidence between the emergence of these campaigns with the arrival of the administration of Xiomara Castro, who took office on Jan. 27, 2022.

"In the specific case of Reporteros [de Investigación], the fact that we are investigating and denouncing has put us in the eye of the hurricane, in such a way that there’s been an escalation of attacks every week. Every week a new attack," Funes told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Imagen de un presunto tuit con la palabra Falso en todo el centro

Esta fue la presunta publicación de Infobae de una supuesta investigación de Insight Crime. En ella se ve a la periodista Wendy Funes supuestamente con vínculos con la Mara Salvatrucha.

Both journalists and human rights defenders who have been the target of these campaigns have in common doing the same type of work, in which they have criticized the handling of the Protection Mechanism, the increase in militarization, as well as allegations of corruption and narco-politics.

Since 2022, Funes and her team have been publishing feature stories detailing the government's plans to increase security in the country through militarization. Since April of this year, the image of Reporteros de Investigación has been used to promote fake news. Although its team constantly comes out to deny these publications, formal complaints to the Public Prosecutor's Office have not been accepted by this entity, according to Funes..

However, it was the coverage of the massacre of 46 women inside a prison in Támara that led to an increase in smear campaigns. "They start linking us to maras and gang groups," Funes said. "By saying that we work with these groups they could be justifying a narrative for the use of physical violence.That is cause for concern."

Then came the peculiar disappearance from its website of an investigation into the "juicy migrant smuggling industry" that had created discontent among authorities. The team, who had a backup copy, managed to repost the investigation. But they still do not know if it was an attack on their site. Because of this same publication, the governor of the department of Choluteca sent an official letter to Funes requesting to withdraw her name, image and any other mention of her at the risk of facing legal proceedings.

Meza, who in addition to directing the Pasos de Animal Grande news outlet works as a human rights defender, has lobbied particularly for the Protection Mechanism to work. She, who has been the beneficiary of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), sees the importance of the Mechanism's functioning. President Castro's arrival has meant a "dismantling" of the Mechanism, as denounced by organizations such as RSF (Reporters Without Borders, by its French acronym). Included in the denunciations are staff dismissals and a lack of resources to ensure its operation.

Due to this mismanagement, Meza has become a sort of "pebble in the shoe": She resigned from the Mechanism's National Protection Council, has filed complaints against the Human Rights Secretariat (the entity in charge of the Mechanism), petitions for public information and, as she told LJR, she goes to the Mechanism’s offices every day demanding protection for journalists and human rights defenders.

"We think that an avalanche of things could come to destroy us completely," Meza said, enumerating all the actions she sees the government taking to silence the media and human rights organizations. Meza has seen a "civil society being co-opted," coupled with an increasing control of the Executive over the other branches of government.

Security concerns and the practice of journalism

These attacks, which are serious in and of themselves, also place the targeted journalists in a situation of greater vulnerability. This, in addition to a weakened Protection Mechanism, create the perfect scenario to intimidate the practice of journalism.

This has been recognized by a group of international organizations defending freedom of expression. On July 25, they issued a statement in which, in addition to denouncing this situation, urged the country's authorities to investigate and put an end to them.

"I think there is a tendency to minimize or delegitimize complaints of the impact that such campaigns can have on the professional practice. We are talking about a country with a very serious history of violence and threats against journalists and defenders," Artur Romeu, director of the Latin America office of RSF, one of the organizations that signed the communiqué, told LJR. “This type of campaign contributes in a very serious way to the consolidation of a hostile environment, an environment of precariousness, of devaluation of the work done by these people, organizations and movements. The denunciation that we do, as organizations defending freedom of the press but also human rights, goes through the understanding that these are very serious issues, even if they are not death threats, a murder, a kidnapping, an enforced disappearance. That the symbolic load of this type of attacks is very, very strong.”

Imagen simulando un cartel criminal con nombres de diferentes personas de Honduras incluidos periodistas y defensores de derechos humanos

Esta imagen que se viralizó incluyen el nombre de la periodista y defensora de derechos humanos Dina Meza presuntamente vinculada con el expresidente de Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández, actualmente preso en Estados Unidos por el delito de narcotráfico.

Funes agrees, for whom a country in which the murders of journalists go almost unpunished, "any little thing is frightening." "I feel that anyone can attack a journalist and there is no intention to protect the press. That is to say, the first indicator that the press is being protected are the internal discourses of power," added Funes, referring to the discourse used by different public officials.

However, she believes their main objective is that the work of journalists and defenders loses credibility. "Their intention is to discredit and disqualify their image before public opinion. It’s to treat journalists as enemies. [...] And one way to destroy that enemy is to destroy their image," Funes said.

Indeed, for Mikaelah Drullard, researcher for the Central America and Caribbean program of Article 19, another of the organizations that signed the recent communiqué, this is one of the issues they have analyzed.

"We have identified several things. The first is the stigmatizing discourse that goes together with smear campaigns. That is to say, a strategy to be able to silence and censor is not only by closing a news outlet and putting people in jail [...] But rather, one way to silence voices is to discredit the voice," Drullard told LJR. “We see a tendency that has worked not only in Honduras, but has also spread throughout the region. This is the construction of a stigmatizing narrative where journalists cease to be those legitimate and authoritative voices that do investigations, [...] but rather they are constructed as opponents.”

For Romeu, from RSF, it is especially worrisome that these stigmatization campaigns are promoted by governments themselves. According to Romeu, although they are not necessarily the ones in charge of these campaigns, the fact that "they do not come out in a clear way against this information" is serious in countries, such as Honduras, with high levels of violence against journalists.

According to him, in Honduras what is being sought is to put an end to denunciations and criticisms by putting them on the same level of an "opposition."

"And that is the most serious thing, because in the end what the government is trying to do is to disassociate itself from the content of the criticisms that are made in order to reinforce a dynamic of a public discourse of polarization and to have a greater level of control over the public debate of the public agenda in the country," Romeu said.

"It is a tendency of authoritarianism, of the misuse of power that is being prolonged in a very significant way in the Central American region," Drullard said.

Honduran authorities, for their part, have not made a public statement following the publication of the communiqué or in response to the comments made by journalists and other organizations. LJR requested an interview with the Secretary of Human Rights and with the Public Prosecutor's Office of the country, but as of the closing of this article had not received a response.

Journalists and media that have found themselves in the middle of these campaigns have opted to adopt other security measures: from the digital sphere, to their work and how they move around routines. In addition, they must spend much of their time in meetings with international actors - in search of protection and to denounce what is happening - as well as with their country’s same authorities to ensure they receive their formal complaints.

Although they do not offer many details of their security routines and meetings, Funes and Meza agree that this takes up a lot of time that they could be using for their work. One purpose they understand is what those who promote these campaigns are looking for: to get them to get tired of doing their work. For this reason, they are convinced that now is not the time to stop.

"Yes, it is tiring to be on the defense with the very few resources we have at the moment, to be adjusting security measures," Meza said. "That ends up wearing you down. But what gets us up every day is that we can't let arbitrary acts pass by. Also how exciting it is to write about what they’re doing and to denounce it. For me that is exciting. That pushes me to keep going.”