Honduran journalists fear more killings


Government foot dragging and a culture of impunity have derailed investigations into the murders of seven journalists in Honduras, according to a July 27 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The killings, which spanned a period from mid-March to mid-June, shocked Hondurans accustomed to waves of violent crime that worsened after the coup in June 2009. Honduras now has the highest murder rate in Central America, the vast majority of which are never solved.

Despite the unusual deaths of media professionals, Honduras' Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez quickly dismissed them as random street crimes, a claim that dismayed CPJ investigator Mike O'Connor.

"That he made such a broad, conclusive assertion so soon after the killings and without citing evidence raised alarm among journalists that the government was not acting in good faith," O'Connor wrote.

"[Our] investigation has found evidence that the victims in at least three cases were slain in relation to journalism, and that work-related motives could have played roles in the others", O'Connor continued.

All of the murdered journalists were from domestic radio and television stations and included locally famous faces such as Nahúm Palacios Arteaga, an anchor for Channel 5, killed on March 14, 2010.

The murdered journalists had a history of confronting powerful landholders and exposing corruption among police. It appears that David Meza, killed on March 11, simply went too far in his popular daily reports on police corruption and abuse in the town of La Ceiba.

"The police can’t stand to be humiliated, not that way," Meza's mentor Abrahám Mejia told CPJ. "So they had to react.”

On March 1, 2010, 25-year-old reporter Joseph Hernández Ochoa was shot dead while riding in a car with Karol Cabrera, one of the country's most polarizing journalists.

Cabrera's critics have denounced her as divisive and an instigator of attacks against opponents of the new government.

Cabrera told CPJ she was the target of the attack, not the unknown Hernández, due to her commitment to the truth and to investigative journalism.

Cabrera's work has been personally costly. In December of 2009, Cabrera's pregnant teenage daughter was ambushed and killed on the very same road, at a time Karol herself was under police protection.

The report stopped short of accusing the government of complicity in the murders or conspiring to cover up the circumstances of the deaths. But the report blamed the pervasive lawlessness and political instability that has allowed powerful narcotics gangs and criminals to push state authority to the margins and to neuter attempts to arrest the guilty.

The impotence or unwillingness of government to solve the murders eats away at journalists who no longer believe they are safe to continue their work.

“You get the impression that the government wants you in terror so you don’t know what to report. Is this story about drugs too dangerous? What about this one about political corruption? At the end you don’t report anything that will make powerful people uncomfortable,” Tiempo's senior editor Geovany Domínguez told CPJ.

The murders of journalists are set against kidnappings, arbitrary detentions and illegal searches aimed at opponents of the coup, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last month. The new president of Honduras Porfirio Lobo has come under pressure from the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) to improve the country's human-rights record.

CPJ called on President Lobo to immediately fix his government's failures and assign independent well-trained investigators in the press-violence cases. Lobo must meet his obligation to the OAS and enforce orders of protection for journalists and other social critics if Honduras is to be a respected international player, O'Connor said.

"Impunity doesn’t give the orders to kill...but impunity ensures that a gunman will always feel safe, that a mastermind will never have to worry," the report concluded.

"Only a long-term commitment by top government officials, in tone, tactics, and resources, will end the climate of impunity. It can be done, and it needs to start now."