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Keynote Address

Good evening.

I would like to thank the Global Media Forum, the US branch of Reporters Without Borders, and in particular the Mackler family for the great privilege of joining you in honoring Karla Rivas of Radio Progreso with the 2011 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Felicitaciones Karla!

Special Rapporteur Catalina Botero had been very much looking forward to delivering the keynote this evening. Unfortunately, for reasons of force majeure related to the ongoing sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, she was not able to be here in person. She joins me, however, in congratulating Karla Rivas and commending the sponsors of the Peter Mackler Award for recognizing Karla and Radio Progreso with this prestigious prize.

As many of you know, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression serves as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ specialized watchdog for press freedom issues in the Americas. In this capacity, we see a hemisphere in which great progress has been made in replacing dictatorships with democracies, enshrining freedom of expression in laws and constitutions, and rolling back censorship and criminal defamation laws.

We also see a region, however, in which enormous challenges remain. It is a region in which over two dozen media workers were murdered last year, and hundreds more were attacked or threatened with death. A region in which violence and impunity combine to produce the deafening silence of self-censorship. It is a region in which presidents, even democratically-elected ones, believe it is legitimate to imprison journalists and bankrupt newspapers who dare to question their decisions. A region in which multiple forms of subtle censorship allow governments to continue rewarding compliant media outlets and punishing critical ones.

And in the parts of Central and South America where these challenges are most acute, where independent, investigative reporting is most threatened, we see examples of enormous courage in journalism. Karla Rivas and her colleagues at Radio Progreso are a shining example of such courage, and for this reason we were delighted to hear that Karla had been selected to receive the Peter Mackler Award and humbled by the invitation to join you in honoring her.

I would like to use my time this evening to speak a bit about the work of Karla Rivas and Radio Progreso, and to place this work within the larger context of Honduras and Latin America.

As you know, Radio Progreso is a Jesuit –run radio station in the Yoro department of Northern Honduras. It strives not only to inform but to educate, to foster a culture of citizenship, particularly among the young and voiceless, and thus contribute to the forging of a more just and inclusive society. In a country with one of the most unequal distributions of income in the Americas, Karla Rivas and her colleagues at Radio Progreso dare to tell inconvenient truths about issues that affect the everyday lives of ordinary Hondurans: issues such as working conditions in the maquilas, the environmental impact of mining and hydroelectric dam projects, and threats to judicial independence. And in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, they often do so at great risk to their personal safety and serenity.

These twin values—of ethical and in-depth reporting about issues of concern to the powerless, and courage in the face of  very grave and real threats—were especially evident in the days and months following the 2009 coup d’etat.

On the morning of June 28, 2009, the staff of Radio Progreso sensed that something had happened in the country, and that major media outlets were keeping it quiet.  What had happened, of course, is that President Manuel Zelaya had been overthrown.

Soon enough, dozens of soldiers appeared outside Radio Progreso’s installations. Karla Rivas was in the broadcasting booth at the time, and she began to report what was going on. The military soon forced its way inside and took the station off the air.

It would not be the last time the military tried to shut down Radio Progreso under the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti, but it would be the last time they would succeed. In contrast to major media outlets in the country, and in defiance of the de facto government, Radio Progreso refused to hide what was occurring in the country and steadfastly opposed the interruption in the country’s democratic order.

At times it did this by broadcasting from secret locations. Other times, when it looked like the army would succeed in taking over the station, the local population spontaneously surrounded the radio’s installations and refused to let the soldiers past. Reporters spent days and weeks moving from house to house because of the threats to their lives. Others were arrested and in some cases beaten by police while covering protests against the coup.

Through it all, Radio Progreso stayed on the air and refused to be bullied into self-censoring or betraying its values. And when the de facto government suspended the constitutional right to freedom of expression by decree and prohibited speech that offended public officials, Radio Progreso journalists found creative new ways, such as the popular Noti-nada political satire program, to continue informing and educating their listeners.

There is certainly much to lament in this story. The return of the military coup in a region that appeared to have overcome the dark days of military rule in the 1970s and 80s. The explosion in violence against journalists in Honduras, with 14 reporters murdered since the coup took place. The government’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for violently silencing the press during the de facto regime, and its unwillingness to acknowledge even the possibility that some of the murdered journalists may have been killed in retaliation for their opposition to the coup or their reporting on corruption or organized crime. Indeed, this is in many ways a tragic story.

It is also, however, a story of hope and triumph. It is the story of reporters who remained faithful to their values and to the highest ideals of their profession. It is the story of the international community—including NGOs like Reporters Without Borders and the Center for Justice and International Law, and international organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—mobilizing to demand protection for journalists, an end to censorship, and a return to democracy. And it is the story of Karla Rivas, Padre Melo, and their colleagues at Radio Progreso, who with immense courage and determination continued to tell the other side of the story in the face of extraordinary obstacles.

Tomorrow, we will once again turn our attention to confronting the many urgent challenges that remain in securing press freedom in Honduras and throughout the Americas and the world. But today, let us take a moment, this moment, to honor a very deserving journalist and to celebrate the example set by Karla Rivas and Radio Progreso.

Thank you very much.