By Christina Noriega
A Honduran appellate court has reinstated a 16-month journalism ban on news anchor Julio Ernesto Alvarado, the latest in a rally of court decisions and appeals since Alvarado was charged with criminal defamation for segments, alleging corrupt behavior of a university dean, aired on his TV program “Mi Nación” (My Nation) in 2006.
The announcement has reopened a debate about the state of press freedom in Honduras, a country that Freedom House demoted from “partly free” to “not free” in 2011.
“For eight years, Mr. Alvarado has been trapped in a web of judicial harassment and un-investigated threats,” said Marian Fraser, chair of PEN International, an international human rights organization to which Alvarado belongs.
Fraser condemned the ban, claiming that the case reflects how conditions for journalists have continued to deteriorate since the 2009 military coup in Honduras. She added that the case of Alvarado, who is the founder of PEN Honduras, “is a mockery of justice, and part of an alarming climate of violence, impunity, and fear in Honduras.”
The ban will not take effect immediately, but only after Alvarado had exhausted all of his legal options in Honduras, Dina Meza, a local human rights activist and legal advisor to Alvarado, told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
According to Honduprensa, Alvarado intends to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court of Justice and PEN International, in the meantime, has urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to take up the case and to pressure the government into adopting precautionary measures to protect journalists.
At the center of the controversy are three TV segments that Alvarado aired in June and July 2006, alleging that Belinda Flores, the dean of the school of economics at the Autonomous National University of Honduras (UNAH), had awarded students falsified degrees in her previous university position.
During these broadcasts, Alvarado aired a live interview with university lecturer Carlos Gustavo Villela, who stated that a university investigation had confirmed the illicit actions by Flores. Alvarado also reported that Guillermo Ayes, the president of the teachers’ union at UNAH, had condemned her appointment as dean of the school of economics in the face of these revelations.
Alvarado was not the only one to report on the Flores case. The Honduran paper El Heraldo also covered the case, PEN International pointed out. But his “Mi Nación” segments aired on Globo TV, a network that has been previously targeted by authorities for its loyalty to former President Manuel Zelaya after he was ousted in a 2009 military coup.
Shortly after these segments aired, Flores accused Alvarado of violating Honduran criminal defamation laws, which the Organization of American States (OAS) and other human rights organizations have said act as a restriction on freedom of expression.
In 2002, the OAS made a broad call for countries with criminal defamation laws to replace them with civil defamation laws. While Honduras did repeal some criminal defamation laws in 2005, such as those targeting individuals who damage the reputation of public officials, other defamation laws – i.e. Article 160 of the Penal Code – still exist, and allow for up to two years in prison for individuals convicted of criminal defamation.
Although a court initially found Alvarado – together with Villela and Ayes – to be not guilty of defamation charges in 2011, Flores appealed the decision and the case advanced to the Supreme Court of Justice. In December of 2013, Alvarado was found guilty after the court rejected claims that he was sharing the opinions of Villela and Ayes, rather than his own. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison, during which time he would be banned from practicing journalism. Villela and Ayes, however, were found not guilty.
Alvarado averted prison time, initially, by paying a fee. And in April 2014, the judge reversed his previous decision, nulling the sentence given to Alvarado. Flores appealed, and on Sept. 22, 2014, the Court of Appeals again sentenced Alvarado to a 16-month ban from journalism.
Reporters Without Borders has called the ban “tantamount to censorship.” PEN International has alleged that the ban may be politically motivated, and has demanded a through investigation into the case. Furthermore, they have expressed concerns over the safety of Alvarado, who told PEN International that he has been followed twice since the Sept. 22 verdict was issued.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.