Journalists denied entry to Honduras say US Embassy told them to ‘figure it out’

Supporters of Honduran presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship coalition, Salvador Nasralla, clash with soldiers and riot police. (Photo by Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Two freelancers from the US have been refused entry to Honduras, where they were planning to cover the tumultuous aftermath of the country’s disputed recent presidential election. The reporters, Jihan Hafiz and Reed Lindsay, say they were turned away from the Central American country for dubious reasons, and that when they called the US Embassy for assistance they were told by a staffer, “It’s not my problem. You’re an adult, figure it out.”

Honduras, which has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists since a military coup in 2009, has been roiled by last week’s election, the outcome of which is disputed between incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández and opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, a former TV sportscaster running on an anti-corruption platform. As mass demonstrations swept the country, several civilians were killed, including a 19-year-old woman shot by police in the capital, Tegucigalpa, on Saturday.

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Hafiz, Lindsay, and a fellow freelancer—British journalist Ed Augustin—flew in to cover the burgeoning crisis on Monday, but were held at the airport overnight. (Between them they have bylines for The Intercept, Al Jazeera, and The Nation, among other publications.) They say Honduran officials told them they were being held because Lindsay’s passport had been flagged as having recently been stolen in Germany; Lindsay says this never happened, and that officials admitted as much just before he was deported. Officials then told them they couldn’t enter the country because they hadn’t given an address where they’d be staying. On Tuesday, they were deported to Panama. “They claim it has nothing to do with journalism, but we think it does,” Hafiz tells CJR.

When the freelancers called the US Embassy for assistance they were told by a staffer, “It’s not my problem. You’re an adult, figure it out.”

Hafiz says that while they were detained in the airport, they tried contacting the US State Department, but were told to talk first to the US Embassy in Honduras. When they did, Hafiz says officials hung up on them, before ultimately dismissing them. “We were quite insulted by the way they treated us,” Hafiz says. “They did not help us.”

The US Embassy in Honduras referred CJR’s request for comment to a State Department official, who wrote in an email that the department “takes its responsibility to assist US citizens abroad seriously,” and that “we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services in cases where US citizens are detained abroad.”

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Hafiz says the freelancers may have been denied access because they flew in from Cuba—which has traditionally had poor relations with Honduras—or because of previous critical coverage of the country. After the military removed leftist President Manuel Zelaya from office at gunpoint in 2009, Lindsay flew in to report, and ended up making a documentary about a U-turn in US foreign policy on Honduras, which ran on left-wing Latin American network Telesur. The Obama administration originally called the coup illegal, then pivoted to support the conservative government. (In the wake of the recent election, the State Department has offered only a cautiously worded statement urging “peace and calm” as a recount—which has been riddled with irregularities—is completed.)

According to Honduras’s National Commission for Human Rights, 70 journalists and media employees have been killed there since 2001. In September, Carlos William Flores was killed in a drive-by shooting as he returned from a reporting trip for local TV station Canal 22, while in January, a journalist for HCH TV, Igor Abisaí Padilla Chávez, was also gunned down in mysterious circumstances. Reporters Without Borders ranked Honduras 140th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index (the US ranked 43rd). Reporters commonly receive death threats or are harassed by the state, especially since the 2009 coup.

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After the recent recount spurred the biggest demonstrations since that coup, the regime imposed a 6pm curfew on the streets. In theory, journalists are allowed to stay out past that time, but they need official press passes to be able to do so, and those can be hard to come by, especially for freelancers. Hafiz, Lindsay, and Augustin didn’t tell the authorities they were entering as journalists until they were detained, as Honduras doesn’t have a visa category for media workers. Other journalists who were granted entry tried the same tactic—and sometimes faced aggressive questioning.

Sarah Kinosian, who has written for The Guardian and appeared on the BBC and Democracy Now since entering Honduras a week ago, got a press pass through a local reporter. The pass has mostly allowed her to move freely, but her physical safety had already been compromised. Before she got it, Kinosian was beaten by a police officer as she reported on a protest a few days ago. “I mentioned it to some other Honduran journalists, and they said, ‘Yeah, this is Honduras, they don’t care, they’ll do that to anyone,’” she says.

Sarah Kinosian was beaten by a police officer as she reported on a protest a few days ago. “I mentioned it to some other Honduran journalists, and they said, ‘Yeah, this is Honduras, they don’t care, they’ll do that to anyone,’” she says.

Domestically, critical coverage of the government is limited. “The majority of the media is in favor of [incumbent President] Hernández….they are in practice the voices and coordinators of favorable opinion [for him],” says Honduran human rights analyst Jesus Garza. “The exceptions are the independent media, which have a different opinion on Hernández.” Some experts interviewed by CJR praised TV station UNE, in particular, for its coverage of the protests. But it’s rumored to have faced threats of closure since the election. “The situation for journalists opposed to the corrupt system is very difficult,” adds Benjamin Zepeda Carranza, a journalist in Honduras with Radio Globo. “Nobody is safe to tell the truth, we don’t have the freedom to converse.”

Much is at stake in Honduras right now: The opposition has come much closer to winning power than many observers expected, and earlier this week branches of the country’s security services rebelled against top brass, refusing to crack down on protesters and calling on politicians to peacefully resolve the election dispute. All this means a key US ally in Central America is creaking. But although a few American media organizations and reporters have successfully passed through customs, most big outlets have reported on the crisis from faraway Mexico City, or else not covered it at all.

“What’s happening is of such historical proportions, not just in Honduras, but in Latin America,” says Andrés Thomas Conteris, the founder of Democracy Now’s Spanish-language edition who is currently freelancing in Honduras. “[Big media outlets] don’t consider this story important enough to send reporters to, which is just pathetic.”

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Correction: Jihan Hafiz says the US Embassy in Honduras hung up on her and her colleagues once, not twice. Sarah Kinosian received a press pass after she was beaten by police. The post has been updated.

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Jon Allsop is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.