The Law of Secrets

  • Written by  Sarah Kinosian

The Honduran government has been quietly barring public access to official security documents and budgets, while closing spaces for protest, dissent, and the press. A key part of this effort is the “Law for the Classification of Public Documents related to Security and National Defense” (Ley para la Clasificación de Documentos Públicos Relacionados con la Seguridad y la Defensa Nacional). Passed in a marathon congressional session just before President Hernández took office in January 2014, the legislation has become better known in the country as the Official Secrets Act or the Law of Secrets.

The law makes it impossible to know where the Honduran government is investing millions of dollars, by classifying public information about security and defense secret for up to 25 years. Documents are categorized as reserved, confidential, secret or ultra secret in the name of protecting national security. But the law provides no parameters for what national security means, which allows the government to file documents it does not want anyone to see into one of these four categories.

 

Human rights activists have called the passage of the law a “setback in the human rights of Hondurans,” with most concerned that it allows corrupt officials to classify the paper trail of their crimes. Because the statute of limitations for prosecuting public officials for corruption is under 25 years, if a document that could incriminate an official were to be classified as “ultra secret,” that official would never be tried, according to the Institute for Public Access to Information (IPAI). In a country like Honduras, where corruption has allowed organized crime to thrive and which ranks 126 out of 175 on Transparency International’s global corruption index, this is concerning.

 

As this IPS report noted, the bill was originally blocked and “there are no audio records in the parliament archives that indicate when it was reintroduced.”

 

To access information that falls under the purview of the law, one would have to make an appeal to the National Security and Defense Council, run by the Attorney General, the head of intelligence (active military), the head of defense and security (recently retired military) and the Chief of Joint Staff of the Armed Forces. The law includes a provision that prevents any person, including journalists, from making any classified material public and requires them to turn it over to the civilian or military law enforcement authorities. Reporters Without Borders called the law a “major new blow to freedom of information in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for news and information providers.”

 

The Law of Secrets was passed about two years after the Population Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Poblacional), better known as the Security Tax, came into being. Described by one seasoned journalist as “one of the country’s best kept secrets,” the tax takes a portion of incomes and profits to pay for the military police and other security initiatives, but where exactly the funds go is unknown, in part due to the Law of Secrets. A former government official told us the Security Tax supposedly pulls in around US$7 million to US$8 million each year. Even the country’s top security scholars could not identify where all the money was going, but multiple journalists and experts guessed funds also paid for the president’s plane and equipment such as planes, radars, boats and other military accouterment.

 

As security expert Omar Riviera told IPS, the Law of Secrets “will make it impossible to get factual information on how the millions of dollars the state collects [via the security tax] are spent.” Transparency International found the country’s budget openness to be “scant or none.”

 

The Law of Secrets is at odds with the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information, passed in 2006, which allowed an autonomous state body, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP), to enforce transparency and handle public information, including classifying documents as secret. Under the new law many of IAIP’s responsibilities were passed to the military-led National Security and Defense Council.

 

The Honduran government proudly points to a new agreement signed October 2014 with Transparency International’s Honduras chapter to allow it to monitor spending on health, education, security and justice, infrastructure projects, and tax administration. While this could prove to be a positive development, we heard considerable skepticism from journalists on how this could be implemented, and how it fits in with the countervailing government efforts to close down information.

 

Indeed, there appears to be an overall general downward trend in transparency in the country, particularly with regards to press freedom. “The media is now the echoes of power -- This government is very skillful, it meets with the owners of the media, constantly talking with them, suggesting what they ought to publish and the papers have to go along,” according to one journalist, who along with several other reporters and civil society experts, said the government is exerting control over the top media. As a result, there is significant self-censorship by the media.

 

Between 2013 and 2015 Honduras slipped from 127 to 132 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. According to the index, “Freedom of information continues to decline in Honduras five years after a coup d’état in June 2009. News providers are threatened, physically attacked and murdered with almost total impunity. The impunity is all the more worrying in the light of the hostility that the authorities display towards the media. A climate of information control and authoritarianism prevails, in which community and opposition media are subject to various forms of persecution, including judicial harassment, and are rendered all the more vulnerable by the broadcasting and telecommunications legislation.” Many government agencies now reportedly have personnel regulations barring employees from speaking to the media.

 

Civil society groups also face challenges. Multiple groups told us that President Hernández does not consult often with civil society, and when he does it tends to be with the same group that toes the government line. “There is an overall closing of spaces at all levels within the government and civil society,” according to a journalist from a press freedom group. Protests, particularly in universities, are also increasingly being criminalized as student leaders have reportedly been detained and tortured, according to members of civil society and journalists.

 

The Hernández administration’s treatment of opponents in the press sometimes goes beyond the bounds of regular political debate. Members of Congress who opposed the government’s plan for constitutional status for the Military Police were accused of ties with organized crime. Civil society groups analyzing the Alliance for Prosperity, the government’s plan with the Guatemala and Salvadoran governments to attract international aid, were accused of organizing a “boycott” of US aid.

 

This lack of overall information and stifling of dissent makes it difficult for investigative journalists and civil society groups to hold the government accountable, essential to strong democracies. The San Pedro Sula Violence Observatory said that in April 2013, it started receiving pushback from the government and the Ministry of Security stopped sharing information on crime and violence statistics. Officials told them the administration was going to set up its own network of violence observatories with help from Colombia instead.

 

It is a lot harder for groups outside the government to come up with alternative solutions to tackle spiraling levels of violence without knowing the true scope and trends of crime and murder. Between a law that bars the public from access to key security information, a government effort to silence the press and protest, an administration unwilling to hear from its civil society, and a politicized judicial system, it is unclear to whom the Honduran government has to answer.

 

One journalist painted a frightening picture for the future: “There is a systematic crushing of each little point of expression. If each civil servant, human rights defender, student and journalist is silenced, then who is left?” (2/25/15)

 

Note: This article was originally published by the Latin America Working Group in Washington, DC.

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