HONDURAS: Deadliest Month Ever for Reporters

  • by Thelma Mejía (tegucigalpa)
  • Inter Press Service

The deaths of five reporters in this impoverished Central American country in March drew expressions of concern from international organisations like Reporters without Borders, the International Press Institute and Human Rights Watch.

Along with its neighbours Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, with 14 deaths a day blamed on organised crime and youth gangs. Many of the bodies turn up with signs of torture, and bound at the hands and feet.

But local and international human rights groups warn that since the Jun. 28, 2009 coup that overthrew then president Manuel Zelaya, the wave of repression targeting the movement against the coup, as well as journalists, has not let up, despite the November elections and the January inauguration of right-wing President Porfirio Lobo.

Nor has the climate of polarisation between supporters and critics of the coup disappeared.

'It would appear that there are groups interested in seeing the deaths of journalists portrayed as a normal phenomenon, so that there is no investigation and the murders go unsolved and unpunished,' Professor Juan Ramón Durán of the School of Journalism at the Autonomous National University of Honduras told IPS.

The Lobo administration has an obligation 'to investigate and identify who was responsible for the murders and why they were committed,' because if the government 'keeps silent, it hurts freedom of expression and the right of citizens to be informed,' said Durán.

Marlen Zelaya, the director of the online news journal Proceso Digital, said 'it's time for journalists to join together and for our unions to be strengthened, to keep these murders from being ignored, as isolated incidents,' she told IPS.

On Mar. 1, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on the car in which journalist Joseph Hernández Ochoa was driving his colleague Carol Cabrera home. Hernández Ochoa was killed and Cabrera was wounded but survived.

When the attack happened, Cabrera was reporting live for the nightly news programme of the Radio Cadena Voces station. In the recording, the volley of gunfire and her frantic shouts for help can be heard.

Cabrera's pregnant 16-year-old daughter had been shot and killed while riding in her mother's car in December 2009. At the time, the reporter was working for the public TV station Canal 8 controlled by the regime of Roberto Micheletti, who was named president after Zelaya's (2006-2009) ouster.

It was initially reported that youth gangs were involved in the young woman's murder. But since the Mar. 1 attack on Cabrera, 'the investigation has taken a new direction, based on leads that we cannot reveal,' police spokesman Leonel Sauceda commented to IPS.

Cabrera has taken refuge in a military hospital, saying a week ago that she will not leave the building 'until I have guarantees that I will not be killed, because I am still under threat.' She did not identify the source of the threats.

The U.S. embassy has offered her asylum.

On Mar. 11, David Meza, a reporter for two national media outlets, the Tegucigalpa-based Radio América and the TV news programme Abriendo Brecha, was shot to death in the northern city of La Ceiba.

A week before his death, Meza denounced that he had received threats from drug traffickers because of his reporting on the murder of an unknown Mexican man in that vicinity.

Ombudsman Ramón Custodio told IPS that the day after Meza was killed, journalist Carlos Geovany Alfonso Streber - director of Canal 36 of La Ceiba, where the slain reporter had a news programme - fled into exile.

'Streber called me as he was boarding a plane to leave the country out of fear of meeting the same fate as his colleague,' Custodio said.

And on Mar. 14, Nahum Palacios was killed as he was driving home in the town of Tocoa, around 100 km southeast of La Ceiba. Seven months earlier, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had urged the Micheletti regime to provide protection for the reporter, who had received death threats. But no such measures were taken.

Palacios had reported that he was threatened and harassed by the security forces for his critical coverage of the coup. His home and office had been raided and equipment was seized, in an attempt to intimidate him, according to press reports.

On Mar. 16, Custodio asked the IACHR to extend precautionary measures to all journalists in Honduras.

Five days after Palacios' murder, two other reporters, José Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juárez, were shot and killed in the northeastern department (province) of Olancho, while investigating a drug trafficking case, journalists who asked to remain anonymous told IPS.

None of the killings has been clarified.

Security Minister Óscar Álvarez told IPS that 'although we already have some clear leads on the motives in at least two cases, we are waiting for some final verifications in order to capture the perpetrators before the end of April.'

Álvarez added that rewards have been offered 'to those who provide information on the deaths of the journalists or on other threats faced by journalism.'

In a statement issued on Mar. 29, the French government condemned the murders and urged the Honduran government to guarantee respect for human rights, and in particular the safety of reporters.

On Mar. 3, HRW addressed a letter to Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí, urging him 'to actively support the investigations' into crimes like 'killings, rape, torture, kidnapping and assault' against members of the National Popular Resistance Front Against the Coup D'etat (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular contra el Golpe de Estado).

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service