The Truth is Out
A version of this interview was published in Church Times on the 20th July 2007.
Honduras is hardly a country that enjoys a high profile. Even in the 1980s, when it was most often in the news, it was overshadowed by its more turbulent neighbours in the United States’ ‘backyard’, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Today the violence, at home and next door, has largely subsided; but it is a far from happy country. The crimes of the 1980s were never punished. The abuse of the poor continues. There is still corruption in the government and the police (though it is by no means universal), and while the media are free according to the law, in practice journalists censor themselves for their own protection. Information is always manipulated.
It was to a Honduran that last week Amnesty International UK awarded its prestigious annual award for human-rights journalism under threat. The recipient was Dina Meza, the co-ordinator of Revistazo, a brave (and very professional) website whose name is a play on words, meaning both ‘big magazine’ and ‘another look’. Its motto is ‘La verdad al descubierto’ – loosely, ‘The truth is out.’
Amnesty is not exaggerating when it describes Ms Meza as ‘under threat’. Ever since 1989, when she first entered the field to fight the oppression, she has endured constant intimidation, and over the past year the harassment has only intensified. She and her colleagues have been followed in the street and have had their telephones bugged. Once, Ms Meza received a message that her teenage daughter was ‘very good-looking’. Other messages have featured funeral music.
Seven months ago, a lawyer called Dionisio Diaz García, who worked closely with Revistazo, was assassinated. A motorbike drew up alongside him as he walked to the court and the pillion rider shot him dead.
I meet Ms Meza at Amnesty’s offices in the City. The building is large and full of light, but it seems perhaps appropriate that we sit in a windowless little room. She is a slight woman who speaks with a quiet intensity, only widening her eyes occasionally to emphasise her words. Besides an interpreter, she is accompanied by Carlos Hernandez, president of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), the Honduran charity that set up Revistazo at the end of 2001. He, too, according to Amnesty, is in grave danger in his country.
Ms Meza is an evangelical Christian and today her faith is central to her work, but this was not always so. In 1989, she was not a believer and what propelled her into the fight for human rights was the ordeal of her brother, Victor, who was kidnapped and tortured for five days by paramilitaries who suspected – wrongly – that he was a left-wing guerrilla. No one was ever charged – in fact, there was not even an investigation.
Ms Meza, then 27, formed a committee with relatives of other victims of oppression, and in 1992 their tireless campaigning prompted the government to declare an amnesty for all political prisoners. She went on to work for the Committee for Families of the Disappeared (Cofadeh), the National Human Rights Commission, the Centre for the Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Honduras (Codeh) and the Centre for Women’s Rights, before she finally joined the ASJ in 2004.
For most of this time, she says, she wondered constantly why she was still unscathed. She began specifically to ‘look for Jesus’ in 1990, after a particularly traumatic experience while she was pregnant with her first child. On a demonstration outside the Presidential House, first a soldier had pointed his gun at her belly and then someone drove a car at her, as if to run her over.
She found Jesus 10 years later and (according to the interpreter) ‘was very impressed’. It was, she says, the best thing that has happened in her life, and it has transformed her work. Previously she was struggling only for justice and for human rights, but now her faith is involved and the mix is ‘like an explosive – it makes me much stronger and gives me much more energy’. She understands now why, though she has tried, she has never been able to quit this field to do something else with her life: ‘God was training me for this, to be his voice, his instrument, in the fight against injustice.’
Her faith has also released her from the dread of being harmed. Before, it took great courage to face the threats, but now she feels quite calm, because she knows a stronger Power is watching over her. She even tells the policeman who is assigned to be her bodyguard – though only in office hours, and at the ASJ’s expense – ‘It isn’t you who is protecting me, but Someone else.’ At this, Mr Hernandez chuckles. I ask her whether there is a verse in the Bible that is especially meaningful for her. ‘Yes,’ she says without hesitation, ‘Psalm 37.5. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this.”’ ‘Amen,’ Mr Hernandez murmurs.
ASJ is itself a Christian organisation, funded in part by the church in Denmark and Ireland, in part by agencies such as Tearfund and the International Mission for Justice, in part by donations from individual evangelicals, especially in the US. It has chosen to champion especially three groups in Honduran society who otherwise have no one to defend them: workers in the fast-food industry, cleaners and the employees of the hundreds of private security companies that have proliferated since the 1980s. These last are very badly treated, though their services are very lucrative for their employers: usually uneducated people from very small villages, they frequently have to work around the clock, with no overtime pay and no holidays. Often their wages are docked, or they are even sacked, for no good reason. It was apparently for defending such people that Mr García was killed.
When I ask Ms Meza and Mr Hernandez whether the Honduran church in general supports the work of ASJ, they both breathe in sharply and then laugh. ‘In general,’ says Mr Hernandez, ‘the church does not. We ask them to do something, or just to say something, but they look the other way. It’s very sad how indifferent they are to injustice, because the church could have a big influence on the whole of our society.’
Perhaps it has seen Christianity as more a matter of personal piety and nothing to do with anything ‘political’? Again, they both laugh in obvious recognition. ‘But Jesus stood with the oppressed,’ insists Ms Meza. ‘He rescued the woman who was being stoned, and he threw the merchants out of the Temple. In passage after passage in the Bible, we see God fighting for social justice.’
Mr Hernandez adds: ‘We must seek the kingdom of God – and God is relationship, he is life, he is solidarity, he is respect, he is love.’ He is anxious to explain that there are elements in the church that have the same perspective, and especially there is a ‘new wave’ of young people bringing new ideas into the church.
Are they optimistic, despite the murder of their lawyer? Very much so – and no less determined. ‘The first thing I did’, says Ms Meza, ‘was to call the radio station that had announced the news to give them the names of the people who were responsible. And the next day, when everyone at the office got together to pray, I told them that if we had faith, the year ahead was going to be full of blessings. And indeed it has been.’
Revistazo has proved effective, in its campaigns for land and labour rights, for instance, and against violence towards women. Those who are powerful now know, says Ms Meza, ‘that if we take on a case we will fight on to the end.’ There is a moment of confusion when the interpreter speaks of her ‘compromiso with God’, before it emerges that compromiso is Spanish for ‘commitment’. Certainly, there will be no compromise. ‘Whatever the legal implications, as long as our information is well documented,’ Ms Meza insists, ‘we will leave nothing hidden.’
© Church Times 2007
Revistazo itself is at present published only in Spanish, but some of its earlier articles are posted in translation here.
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