by Tasnim Shamma
As we drove into the interior of Zacate Grande island in rural Honduras, we found ourselves surrounded by large, beautiful tree-lined mountains. When we reached the community of Puerto Grande, the leader of our Princeton University delegation told us to turn off the air conditioning in our van and open the windows.
Though it was an unusually hot day, he explained that it would be reassuring to the villagers to be able to see inside what would otherwise look like an ominous black van.
The villagers had good reason to be suspicious of unmarked vehicles – they were involved in an intense land feud with Miguel Facussé, one of the richest landowners in the country.
The small, three-room community radio station we visited was emblazoned with the words “hope,” “peace” and “sacrifice,” so it might surprise some to learn that on June 3, 300 police and military officers tried to shut it down. But violence and intimidation have been a fact of life for many Hondurans since June 28, 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup.
During the April 14 inauguration of the radio station, which bills itself as “La Voz de Zacate Grande” (97.1 FM), paramilitaries brutally assaulted a man associated with the station. It has been shot at and its employees have received numerous threats. Community members are often questioned about their affiliations and activities by authorities who are intent on dissuading participation.
During the 1970s, Facussé began removing poor families from shoreline communities and relocating them higher in the mountains in order to use the land by the beach to build large mansions. The communities worked to stop removals by organizing politically to protect land that they had been living on for 100 years. But when Facussé arrived, he declared subsistence farming and fishing illegal, leaving the settlers with no means of supporting their families.
Just two weeks before our visit in early September, officers armed with AK47s, which community members refer to as Facussé’s “death squad,” injured two men and one woman. In Honduras, human rights violations, such as murders and disappearances, are attributed to general crime by the government and the United States-initiated “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” But most people believe that the rise in crime since the coup is no coincidence. Organizations such as the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) have been keeping track of people who have disappeared and set up an alternative “truth commission” to document human rights violations since mid-2009.
Mainstream media organizations are either owned by individuals like Facussé or they censor themselves because of the great risk telling the truth poses to their personal safety. Since January, 10 journalists who wrote for alternative media outlets have been murdered. Recently, the Honduran government took control of a private news channel to convert it to a government channel to promote its own agenda and programming.
Journalists at radio stations like the one in Zacate Grande say they routinely receive death threats. Of the 17 teenagers and young adults who were chosen to control operations of the station, only 10 are still involved because of danger to themselves and their families or pressure to cease participation. Eight are currently in legal proceedings or on probation because they worked for the station.
Despite the great danger and risk they face, Honduran journalists like the young adults in Zacate Grande recognize the importance of empowering their otherwise powerless communities by speaking out against repression and fighting for their right to free speech and a free press.
See more photos here.
Tasnim Shamma is a senior at Princeton University. She was a Spring 2010 Chips Quinn Scholar at Newsweek in New York City. Shamma has been a multimedia editor, senior news writer, blogger, videographer, copy editor and designer for The Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper. She was a reporter and copy editor for The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.) in the summer of 2009 and has been involved with the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program since 2006, when she was first admitted as a student.