Targeting journalists in Honduras

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The killers were waiting for Lucas Manzanares as his Mazda pickup rolled through downtown Tegucigalpa the morning of May 8. With him were his wife, daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter. As he slowed down in traffic, the two gunmen stepped up anyway and fired more than 20 rounds from their 9-mm automatic pistols into the pickup cab. Manzanares and his wife, remarkably, survived. His daughter and granddaughter were killed.

Hondurans might have dismissed the killings as just one more cold-blooded atrocity in the nation with the Western hemisphere's highest homicide rate. But Manzanares is a close aide to the publisher of one of Honduras' leading newspapers — making him the eighth journalism-related target attacked in almost as many weeks in that country.

Since March 1, seven journalists have been murdered in much the same execution style that Manzanares' attackers attempted. Many fear their deaths may signal a new, more violent chapter in the Honduran political crisis, which began after last summer's military coup and has since caused the U.S. a raft of diplomatic headaches in Latin America. "We can't reach sure conclusions yet about these cases," says Honduran newspaper columnist Alfredo Haces. "But a lot of journalists here are living in terror."

So much so that some have begun wearing bullet-proof vests on the job. U.N. human rights experts this week called on Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to "thoroughly investigate these killings" and "ensure the physical and psychological integrity" of journalists. The U.S. has also expressed "grave concern". But the Lobo Administration, elected last fall while a coup-installed government was in power, is downplaying any suggestion that freedom of expression is under threat, even though most of the slain journalists covered sensitive beats such as politics and drugs. "In no case is there a sign of any organized group wanting to silence journalists," Public Security Minister Oscar Alvarez insisted this month.

Press freedom watchdogs say it's absurd to discard that possibility so quickly, especially since no arrests have been made in any of the cases. "It's really irresponsible," says Carlos Lauria, senior Americas coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, "when you consider the chilling effect these killings have had on the media in Honduras." Alvarez's statement seems particularly hasty given the backdrop of the murders — the violent civil tensions that have afflicted Honduras since last June's ouster of leftist President Manuel Zelaya, which led to a heavy-handed crackdown on the media by his de facto successor, Roberto Micheletti.

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