Radio Progreso’s present for defending freedom of expresión
This year, when Nicaragua’s envío is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Honduras’ Radio Progreso is celebrating its 55th, Karla Rivas, Radio Progresso’s news director,
has received the Peter Mackler Prize for her commitment and courage in the defense of freedom of expression in difficult social and political circumstances. We share the radio team’s deep joy at this recognition. Looking back on Honduras’ coup and Nicaragua’s fraudulent elections, we join our colleagues in reflecting on the difficult task of being free to express our experience..
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Karla Rivas, news editor for Honduras’ Jesuit-founded Radio Progreso and communications coordinator for the Jesuits’ Reflection, Investigation and Comunication Group (ERIC) in Honduras, received the Pater Mackler Foundation Prize in Washington on October 20. This award is granted annually to a world journalist distinguished for commitment and courage in defending freedom of expression in particularly difficult social and political circumstances. It was established by the family of French journalist Peter Mackler, who made a name for himself as a war correspondent and worked with young people in defense of freedom of expression.
Honduras in the judges’ sightsEarlier this year, when the judges were considering the award, Honduras was in their sights for the aftermath of human rights violations provoked by the 2009 coup d’état and for the harassment since then of independent journalists, whose activities have been cut off by the solid wall of an information blackout. It’s thus not surprising that they identified Karla Rivas, member of the team of Radio Progreso, a station that in the past few years has given clear signs of pursuing its journalistic mission in defiance of the country’s violent and aggressive reality. In the midst of the political storm caused by the coup, Radio Progresso maintained its critical stance, questioning, putting forward ideas and revealing truths, half-truths and lies.
A difficult commitmentIn the wake of this prize, we’ve reflected on the road we have trod over more than five decades at Radio Progreso, building spaces where we can practise and fight for freedom of expression, even more so in the over two years since the coup on June 28, 2009.
Siding with freedom of expression is, without a doubt, one of the most uncomfortable and counter-cultural adventures a person can take on. In a country like ours it means accepting into your life jumpiness, insecurity, suspicion, mistrust, threats, warnings and complaints. And when the latter come from those who used to be our friends, freedom of expression becomes a constant thorn, hard to bear, that tempts us to stifle it if doing so ensures us praise, recognition and a more privileged existence.
A deep-seated commitment to the decision to exercise freedom of expression is almost like swimming against human nature itself, which advises us to stay on everyone’s good side, especially those who have power, money and privilege. Human nature always counsels us that the healthiest way to avoid suffering stress is to stay on the right side of friends, even though they play dirty with society, and to exercise maximum prudence in any situation. Communicators are frequently advised to keep their balance, even when society is experiencing the greatest of imbalances. Siding with freedom of expression means breaking with this caution.
The challenge is harder in a confessional medium One never knows just how far along this road our company will stay with us despite our alliances, our agreements and disagreements, shared visions and fallings out, because exercising freedom of expression puts even the most noble and innocent friendships to the test. It is an uphill battle that always begins at home. How does one freely express opinions, broadcast news and information and share analyses if those ultimately responsible for the medium don’t usually belong to democratic structures, where plurality, transparency and participation hold sway? How does one do so in the middle of a confessional institution in which this confessionality is eulogized?
This is the case of Radio Progreso: throughout its history it’s had to open spaces for freedom of expression, disconcerting fundamentalist groups. When faced with open programming for the whole of society, these very often good people, devout members of the Catholic Church, demand that we restrict ourselves to the confessional identity. In these cases, freedom of expression is understood as sticking to a determined religious confession as if one were a party militant.
Opening up to freedom of expression in a radio station or any medium inserted in a confessional structure has been and will continue to be the first test to overcome. For the team it means moving among the calls to prudence, institutional religious loyalties and loyalty to he who, having testified that “the truth shall set us free,” was tortured and assassinated by the religious and political powers of his time.
We don’t always come out of this dilemma unscathed. We frequently submit to certain self-censure in order to survive external censure or condemnation that could even mean the radio being shut down. On issues of sexual mores it is especially difficult to come out unscathed owing to the severe, rigid and intransigent traditions learned.
In these past 30 months since the coup we’ve had to swallow so many opinions, reflections and objective information. We still carry them around inside, only able to unburden ourselves in low voices in the corridors. We can’t express them in front of the microphones because they relate to some well-known personality who, with a single sign of the cross, could put an end to our entire radio history, taking many silent, humilliated and repressed voices off the air.
Autonomy and independenceFighting for freedom of expression becomes an uncomfotable and uncertain bid in any society. It’s even harder in a society such as Honduras’ because freedom of expression has to do with independence and autonomy from fear.
All media strive for independence and autonomy in their relationship with society’s diverse forces and powers. If they attain it, they win the conditions to exercise freedom of expression. If they subordinate themselves to certain forces or powers, however noble they might be, they won’t be free.
How does one obtain independence and autonomy from such diverse powers that exercise pressure, coercion, threats and seduction over the media? How can social communicators act independently in media that condition their salary and labor stability to loyalty to the owners’ interests, particularly in a society like ours where stable employment is a luxury? How can the media achieve independence in a society where democratic institutionality is subordinated to the arbitrary decisions of those who exercise the law of the jungle? How does one attain independence in media subjected to the law of supply and demand, in which their own sustainability depends on the advertising that comes from the economical and political sectors that control the law?
In Honduras identifying oneself as “independent” might sound as if one is playing along with those who maintain the media wall because independence is the main teaching of government and big business media. They proclaim it daily, with the same formality with which we proclaim ourselves independent countries in September every year, even though we still wear certain chains. Each powerful sector considers the media independent if they criticize others, but not them.
We can’t keep silentThe upper classes have often approached our radio station, very politely and subtly demanding that we take their side. Even more subtly, but resoundingly, they offer us economic benefits to keep quiet about certain issues. The accusations start if we don’t accept, if we’re critical or broadcast news that shows up unfair practices that are against workers or that attack the environment: they say we’re enemies of development, that we scare away foreign investment and promote chaos and social division. We aren’t against the business classes or private enterprise, but we can’t keep silent about their injustices or human rights violations or refuse to hear the victims’ clamor. Journalistic ethics are at risk in this daily task. If the victims don’t have the freedom to express the abuse they suffer, our medium isn’t faithful to freedom of expression.
They accuse us of selling outOur radio has a natural affinity with the grassroots sectors, that majority of society that carries the weight of exclusion. This affinity is our identity and the seal of our historical journey. Often leaders of those sectors would like to understand this affinity as complicity with the abuses they commit from the power of their positions. They think that just because the station talks about trade unions and grassroots associations, it should keep quiet about and even cover up all sorts of behavior and decisions. Some of them want it to become the spokesperson for the lines and interests of the grassroots organizations, whatever they may be. This also puts media independence and autonomy at risk, adulterating freedom of expression.
Acting independently in these situations is not to the liking of grassroots leaders and organizations, so they raise their voices and accuse us of “selling out.” In recent times there has been no lack of voices telling us we’re playing the coup leaders’ game. When we criticise business owners and sectors of the grassroots movements with an even hand, or when we don’t support certain party political processes, they easily dismiss us as a “turncoat” radio station.
In times as stormy and polemical as ours, it’s normal for each of society’s sectors to want the media to express its way of thinking, defend its interests and back its fighting strategies. In such a climate, media that don’t say exactly what the group wants them to say are condemned and seen as the enemy.
That happens even though they know perfectly well that a critical viewpoint, reflection and analysis have been part of Radio Progreso for a long time. They are part of its heritage, of an identity shaped over many years and through many upheavals. Because of this there’s never been any lack of affluent groups opposing us. And on a number of occasions we have also left some grassroots or leftwing leaders uncomfortable because we don’t follow their political line, while the poorest communities and community organizations feel encouraged and accompanied by our work and our scheduling, and identify with it.
Independence isn’t In the relationship of co-responsibility and respect that we maintain with grassroot sectors and trade unions, they know perfectly well that our words and analysis don’t repeat lines and slogans, but rather seek to bring thought-out elements to the debate and search. We have maintained this same relationship with other social and religious sectors in the country. Reaching independence and autonomy with respect to the Catholic Church’s official way of thinking has cost us so much that we don’t want to put it in hock with other particular social or political sectors.
the same as neutrality
Radio Progreso’s independence is the condition that makes it possible to exercise freedom of expression. it’s therefore non- negotiable. We can only serve society as a critical conscience if we’re independent, and that’s the only way we can put freedom of expression at the service of the people who count the least in decision-making circles. Especially in times as uncertain as the ones we’re currently living through, Radio Progreso constantly needs to strengthen its independence in the face of the State’s power dynamics, its civil servants, the political parties and business sectors.
Independence isn’t neutrality or timidity or cowardice. Radio Progreso has sympathetically observed the bursting onto the stage of the diverse sectors that have organized around the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP). With affection it has accompanied them in both their organized and peaceful response and their organizing of social protest, especially following the constitutional rupture, which have involved gestures of dedication, sacrifice and dignity. These realities are an exemplary contribution to our society’s democratization. Because of this we assume responsibility for accompanying, analyzing, illuminating, debating and questioning such paths that open up. We base our independence and our critical stance on this recognition.
When the FNRP became a political party, our radio kept its distance from its party interests and slogans and more closely accompanied the diverse grassroots, community and territorial organizations that are raising their dignity and demands independent of the party.
Accompanying processesWe’ve spent our life as communicators building the right to exercise freedom of expression, often at the cost of a bloody nose. Radio Progreso’s place isn’t with a political party or the religious confessional or alongside the interests of established powers, whatever their ideological expressions might be. Based on our Christian inspiration, we encourage society to organize politically to channel its demands and influence the transformation of all spheres of society and the State from below. We accompany and sympathetically watch every process to build social and political alternatives out of the richness and originality born of this dynamism that creates resistance by people and organizations in defense of their dignity.
We’re on the side of building a democratic, inclusive and participatory society with an institutionality that translates into an authentic rule of law. It’s the only way we can have media that will guarantee freedom of expression. Until we build these conditions, freedom of expression will always be precarious. In this bid, we stand with the communities and populations whose voices are barely heard in the diverse forums and spaces that currently exist. We do it accompanied by the spirit of Monsignor Romero, who told us that “in different political times, whoever is in power, what matters is the poor.”
A present we shareGiven our understanding of freedom of expression, we know that recognition and prizes might not come to our radio station. Each year, on the day of the journalist, invitations rain down on social communicators all around the country from different government institutions and private enterprise. Prizes and things of value are awarded to journalists who have known how to be faithful to the media wall. The Radio Progreso team knows it will never receive a prize, or that the day it happens it will be because something serious has drawn us away from serving the freedom of expression.
For this reason Karla Rivas’ reaction was a natural one. When she received the notification that she’d won the Peter Mackler prize, she came to the director’s office with a haunted look, saying, “And what am I supposed to do with this thing they’re giving us?” That same day we released the news in an editorial we called “A present we share.” This is what we said: “Presents are like that, unexpected, surprising and pleasant, if, obviously, they are real presents. Sometimes things are called presents when they’re not. For example, in our Honduran political circles, we’re used to it being called a present when a high-up oficial gives out money or invites his activitists to lunch or makes donations to individuals, organizations or communities.
“But those handouts aren’t presents because everyone knows they are in exchange for loyalty and obedience.
In remote rural areas you still hear of politicians or cattle ranchers who ‘regale’ country people with hooch to keep them brutish or kill a cow for them in exchange for their vote. In some circles it’s still called a gift when people collect old clothes and household goods that are just in the way and give them to the poor as a ‘present.’
“Those aren’t presents. They’re conscience buyers. A present comes when nobody expects it, when it’s given without expecting anything in return and when the committment comes from the heart. A present is one of the most beautiful expressions in human relationships, because it isn’t given with any sort of calculation and can’t be controlled by supply and demand. A present is just that: a gift, something received without having looked for it and it stops being that when the person who receives it has conquered it, looked for it or aimed for it.
“A present is a profound expression of life. This is the sort of present the Radio Progreso team received through our colleague Karla Rivas with the awarding of the Peter Mackler Prize, announced by Global Media Forum and Reporters without Borders. The news of this international recognition has filled us with happiness due to its unexpectedness, our surprise and also because without doubt many other people in our country are more deserving. And we’ve received it on our 55th anniversary, which we’re just starting to celebrate and which will culminate with a beautiful grassroots party on December 17.
“We thank you for the abundant congratulations we’ve received. That gratitude commits us to continue being a radio that gives itself over entirely to its people in our Honduras, thirsty for truth, joy, tenderness, justice, peace and solidarity. We want to carry on being a gift though our commitment to the fight for the democratization of communication, to carry on accompanying the faith, joys and sadnesses of our communities. We want to continue accompanying the struggles and hopes of our people, to carry on reporting human rights violations, to go on with a critical, pro-active and independent analysis and continue building a civic political culture.
“We receive the 2011 Peter Mackler Prize gratefully and share it with you, because the identity of our Radio Progreso can never be understood without the love and closeness you’ve been giving us as a present throughout our entire history.”
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.