Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno waits in the office of Georgia Congressman Henry "Hank" Johnson at the U.S. Capitol May 17 before a news conference. The Honduran priest, better known as Father Melo, met in mid-May with U.S. lawmakers about stopping military aid to the Central American country. CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

Jesuit radio is at forefront of human rights battle in Honduras

  • May 24, 2018
WASHINGTON – A surprising item appears in a proposal requesting donations on behalf of a Jesuit-run radio station in Honduras: bullet-proof glass for the front office.

That's because the popular Radio Progreso station, and the Catholic journalists and others who work there, are regularly threatened. Over the past four years, two people associated with Radio Progreso have died violently.

Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno, the station's director, said Radio Progreso offers news, analysis, critical humor but also commentary about human rights in the country, including content critical of the Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez and his administration.

Because of its Jesuit roots, the 62-year-old radio station's mission is the search of truth and justice, said the priest, known popularly as Father Melo.

When the present Honduran president decided to seek a second term, even as the constitution limited the presidency to one term, Father Melo and others denounced the move as illegal and his administration as illegitimate. Critics of the administration have suffered physical attacks, death, as well as imprisonment, which Radio Progreso has documented and made public.

"The radio is part of the Society of Jesus, and the mission of the Society of Jesus is faith committed to justice. So, if the radio is the property of the Society of Jesus and the mission of the Jesuits is to promote justice, what else would its radio station do but defend human rights from the point of view of our faith?" he asked during a May 17 interview with Catholic News Service in Washington. "This radio is devoted to justice and if justice in Honduras is being trampled and human rights are being violated, this radio station has to serve its mission."

But that very mission has made those associated with it, including Father Melo and those closest to him, vulnerable to attack.

In 2014, Carlos Mejia Orellana, the marketing manager for Radio Progreso, was fatally stabbed at home in El Progreso, Honduras, where the station is located. In 2016, Berta Caceres, a Honduran activist for environmental and indigenous causes, who often took to the airwaves of Radio Progreso, was shot to death at home in La Esperanza.

Even though its mission is dangerous, there's never been a more critical time for the station's work, Father Melo believes. In a country where media is owned by the rich and powerful, the scrappy Radio Progreso is funded by collections taken up among the rural poor in Honduras, as well as from donors from Europe and now the United States. It strives to be a prophetic voice among the chaos of Honduras, which suffers from poverty, government corruption and now gang violence that places it among the most dangerous countries not at war.

The work of Radio Progreso mirrors what Blessed Oscar Romero did in neighboring El Salvador when he was archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his assassination in the 1980, when he would call out crimes against the poor and command soldiers to stop killing innocent civilians during the armed conflict, said Jose Artiga, executive director of the San Francisco-based SHARE Foundation, who traveled with Father Melo during his trip to the U.S. in May.

"It's the same method (Blessed) Romero used to reach people," said Artiga, a native of El Salvador, who is helping to organize a fundraising effort for the station in the U.S. "Romero used radio as a tool to reach the people, not just Catholics, but soldiers, people in the countryside, everyone."

Similarly, Father Melo said, Radio Progreso is not seeking to increase the number of Catholics, but to diffuse the message of justice to a large audience, currently estimated at about 700,000 daily listeners "without giving a thought to whether they're Catholics, evangelicals, agnostics or atheists ... we want to defend human rights and embark on journey toward justice, that's the objective."

Just as Blessed Romero suffered accusations because of what he said, Father Melo and his colleagues are frequent targets of misinformation, accusations, and threats.

"We're said to be promoters of violence, some say we're armed, that we're drug dealers, anything to discredit us," Father Melo said.

But that won't stop the work of the 58 workers who toil around Honduras to make the Radio Progreso's mission possible. While most workers at Radio Progreso are Catholic, that's not a consideration to work there, he said.

"The only prerequisite is that they have a love and commitment to carry out freedom of expression with independence and that they be willing to defend the rights of the poor," he said.

And in an age of rapidly evolving technology, the station's listeners have increased thanks to the internet and smartphones, which many new listeners use to tune in, said Father Melo.

"We have an audience throughout the country, but also an international audience," he said, which helps Radio Progreso raise awareness about the plight of Hondurans.

Ad sales and a collection campaign among the poor called "your voice is my voice," in which rural Catholics give small amounts of money for the station, help fuel the programming but over the years, donations began to arrive from churches in Spain, Norway, Germany and Ireland, he said.

Father Melo's recent visit to the U.S. culminated with the creation of the SHARE-Honduras Foundation, a nonprofit that will help the radio's mission and also include money to buy the bullet-proof glass.

The SHARE Foundation, whose initials stand for Salvadoran Human Aid, Research and Education, was founded at the behest of Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas to help raise awareness in the U.S. about human rights violations in El Salvador, and now Father Melo has issued a similar request when it comes to educating others about Honduras, said Artiga.

"We want to respond to that call," he said.

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