The depths of the Honduran president’s alleged efforts to control the local press was revealed in an indictment leaked yesterday in the Central American nation. The new documents also alleged yet another corruption case to which the family and inner circle of President Juan Orlando Hernández is connected.
The allegations outlined in the case involve some $5 million that were funneled from the office of the presidency through front companies to journalists and political elites.
“[The case shows] the fact that the structural and institutionalized corruption in the country uses journalists and the media and this mechanism that reinforces impunity,” said Manuel Torres, a veteran Honduran journalist.
One of the most embattled leaders in the region, Hernández, who U.S. prosecutors accuse of accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers, has relied, at least in part, on the control and intimidation of the press to maintain power.
“If it weren’t for the media control, then at the least [Hernández] would have had it harder,” said a political analyst who asked not to be named.
This latest corruption case, named Hermes after the Greek god associated with thieves, is at least the third presented in recent years in which the president’s (now deceased) sister, Hilda Hernández, figures as one of the leaders of the conspiracy.
The scheme began in 2014 shortly after Hernández was inaugurated to his first term as president. Hilda was appointed as the minister of strategy and communication, making her the person in charge of managing the government’s image and putting out fires when controversy sparked.
In that capacity, Hilda directed the office of the presidency to hire what prosecutors say was a front company that over the next three years received roughly $5 million in public funds. The funds were spent on a variety of purchases with no possible justification as a public expense, including mortgage payments, the acquisition of African palm plantations and the payroll of a local soccer club.
A portion of the funds was also diverted to an apparent shell company owned by Hilda and managed by brother Tony Hernández, who was convicted of drug trafficking in a New York federal courthouse in October 2019. Hilda was also investigated for drug trafficking by the DEA. She died in a helicopter crash in December 2017.
“Each member of the family plays an instrument in an orchestra,” said a political analyst, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of the repercussions, referring to the large Hernández family and its alleged roles in criminal acts. “One managed the media; another managed the bribes that [President Hernández] received from criminal sources.”
Payments made to 77 journalists – including high-profile TV and radio hosts as well editors and producers – ranged from roughly $600 to $4,000 monthly – significant amounts in a country where most journalists earn less than $1,000 per month. The journalists were reportedly unable to justify the payments, and prosecutors allege that the money was instead meant to influence their coverage.
Payments to journalists is just one of the ways that the government exercises control over the media. In 2013, when Hernández was still president of Congress, a law was approved that allows media outlets with outstanding debts to the government to pay it off by publishing government propaganda. In practice, the law has increased the amount of propaganda in the media and rewarded outlets that follow the government line.
“For speaking well of the government, they get a tax reduction,” said a political analyst.
When journalists can’t be bought, they are subjected to smear campaigns designed to destroy their credibility. “Every day they’re more skilled at disinformation,” said Torres. “When those tactics fail the government, they turn to direct threats.”
In one of the most violent countries in the world, and with a government apparently co-opted by organized crime, the threat is very real. At least 86 journalists have been murdered in Honduras since 2001. “It’s a very vulnerable situation, very fragile, that demands great personal and family sacrifice,” said Torres.
The payments to journalists are nothing new, but observers say the government of Hernández has attempted to tighten its grip over the media like no other administration in recent history. Honduras has fallen in the World Press Freedom Index in each of Hernández’s years’ in office to number 148 out of 180 countries.
None of the journalists connected to the bribery scheme have been charged for receiving the payments. After the list of the journalists involved was leaked this week, images of them tagged with the amount of money they had allegedly received from the racket circulated on social media.
Among the 11 people who were charged are close allies of Hernández and employees of several different government institutions. Given that the government has repeatedly thwarted efforts to prosecute corrupt politicians, there is little hope that they will face any legal consequence for their actions.
“They have an ability to survive their corrupt acts, which can only be explained thanks to the institutional support they have,” said Torres.
However, the fact that the case has exposed journalists for their alleged complicity to manipulate coverage in favor of the government does serve as a warning to others and could help break the government’s iron grip on the press, said a political analyst.
“This is a call to attention for journalism in Honduras that if it can’t self-regulate then the justice system will do it through these cases.”