Jesuits campaigning for human rights in Honduras: interview

Padre Melo credit Sean Hawkey
Padre Melo credit Sean Hawkey

Photo journalist Sean Hawkey has just returned from Honduras where he interviewed Jesuit human rights campaigners. Sean works worldwide on faith and justice issues. As a young professional he worked for ten years in Latin America and taught at the Jesuit university in San Salvador.  He edited an ecumenical magazine in London for five years and ran communications for an ecumenical alliance of aid agencies in Geneva before going freelance.

Sean interviewed human rights campaigner and Director of Radio Progreso, Fr Ismael Moreno SJ, known as Padre Melo, after prayers at an ecumenical vigil outside the US embassy earlier this month.  Padre Melo, who has received repeated and specific death threats recently, described what it is like to express opposition to the Honduran government through the media.

“Media in Honduras is intimately linked to the groups who have power. Power in Honduras is ultimately expressed through the capacity to control the media. The well-established national media in the country is associated with the five powerful groups Grupo FICOHSA, Grupo Atlántida, Grupo Dinant, Grupo Terra and Grupo Karim’s.

The media normally follow the script, and ultimately reflect the interests of these powerful groups who have more power than any government.  These are the real government, and they have the ability to veto any sort of candidature that could affect their interests.  These five groups were behind the coup of 2009 [which ousted Manuel Zelaya Rosales and brought to power the current president Juan Orlando Hernandez] and they were behind the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernandez.  These five groups are closely linked to the embassy of the United States of America

So, for the media that aren’t on the same page, those who align with defenders of human rights, with opposition, that are outside of the control of the government and the five power groups, they are dealt with by a rigid five-step process.

Soldiers prepare to throw stones at protesters

Dealt with by a rigid five-step process

The first step is to ignore us. For those of us who have a different point of view, or who question the government, we’ll never be invited to a TV station to speak, they’ll never run a story on who we are and what we do. We are ignored.

Secondly, when we can’t be ignored, they will twist information on what we do in order to stigmatise and discredit us. For example, they won’t talk about what we do or say, instead they will call us rebels, revolutionaries, that we try to stop development, or that we are linked to organised crime.

If that doesn’t work, their third step is to try to co-opt or bribe us. It can be with money, but it might be with recognition, invitations to participate in bodies or events that deal with human rights, to five-star hotels.

When that doesn’t work then they try to criminalise us, which is the fourth step. That’s why the Penal Code has been reformed, to enable accusations of terrorism, or treason.
If none of that works, then they go to the fifth step which is assassination.

We are trying to avoid the last step

At Radio Progress we have been ignored, but they can’t ignore us completely. They’ve tried to buy us off. Last year they offered me the government prize for human rights. I would have been part of their game if I’d accepted it. That hasn’t worked. They’ve tried to stigmatise us, they’ve produced leaflets [claiming links to organised crime]. Attempts have been made to criminalise us. And now we are trying to avoid the last step.

The media here try to hide the reality that people live in Honduras, the extremes of wealth and poverty, with wealth in so few hands. They try to hide the repudiation of this situation by the majority. They try to maintain a status quo that favours investments by the five groups and the United States.

The main media here work against the true role of the media, which is to inform, generate informed opinion and generate a culture of participation and coexistence and peace.

My vocation is not party politics

Franciscan sisters take part in the vigil outside the US EmbassyMany people ask me if I would be a candidate for public office. Political parties have even approached me, to be a unifying figure among groups with differences. But my vocation is not party politics. My vocation emerges from a deep faith, from the gospels and scriptures.

Everything I live and say and do, comes from my faith in God, that makes all things new, that invites us to build a humanity, so that His glory shines. Here people suffer because they don’t have anything to eat; their human rights are abused; there’s no freedom of expression; employment is a matter of luxury, and not a basic right for young people; the rights of women and children are abused; and there is corruption with impunity.

It is hard in these circumstances to give glory to God. My faith necessarily has to have a public service dimension - to use public service for the well-being of the many and not just for the few.

A world organised with its back to God

What moves me is a profound faith that the Lord wants us to bring good news, particularly to those who suffer the consequences of a world organised with its back to God, a world in sin. That is what motivates me. I try to live this faith in a public way, you can’t try to lock it up. In this world there is a need for the presence of God for us all to live in joy.

I don’t believe in power that crushes; I don’t believe in the power of weapons; I don’t believe in the power of imposition; I believe in the power that produces change for the common good. That’s why I’m in a public role. All human beings have power, it’s the orientation that we give it that produces good or evil. Here in Honduras I feel, from my faith, that I am obliged to confront the malignant power of Juan Orlando Hernandez. I am not moved by hatred but by love. The power that he has is destroying him, but it is also destroying humanity.

I put my faith and my spirit in the creative and loving power of God. I can never take a role in party politics or be a candidate, I’m not looking for that. I will always be outside, promoting the purification of power, from the perspective of the gospels.”

While in Honduras Sean Hawkey also caught up with Fr Jean Denis Saint Felix SJ, from Haiti, who works in Washington at the office for Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference for North America and the Caribbean.  He was in Honduras as part of a visiting delegation of faith groups to show solidarity with Padre Melo and colleagues.

Fr Saint Felix SJThe people are afraid

“Jesuits, wherever we are, we are concerned about justice. We want to promote faith, but a faith that is built on justice. That is why I am here, to show solidarity with the people of Honduras and with persecuted people of faith in the country. What we have seen on this visit is that the people are afraid, they have been victims of a lot of repression by the armed forces and the Military Police.

We have been listening to the testimonies of many people who have become victims or who have lost members of their families in the violence perpetrated by the armed forces since the elections. We have found that the people, even though they are afraid, they want to move forward and for their rights to be respected.

A symbol of the struggle for democracy

There aren’t many points of view represented in the press in Honduras. So, Radio Progreso, the Jesuit radio, provides a news service, and has become a symbol of the struggle for democracy. The radio is a commitment to stand alongside the Honduran people, for their rights to be respected. Alongside the radio we also have a research group, called ERIC, which tries to give objective analysis of the situation in the country. And we accompany people in their daily lives, in solidarity with them in their struggles for rights and justice, through our parishes.”

All photos and interviews by Sean Hawkey Sean Hawkey