Impunity, torture suggest political nature behind attacks on Honduran journalists
Since Honduran President Porfirio Lobo took office on Jan. 27, 2010, following disputed elections, 16 journalists in the Central American country have been killed and none of the crimes have been solved. In a 2010 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists claimed the “murders [of press workers] occurred in a politically charged atmosphere of violence and lawlessness.” The violence's political undertones have raised concerns about impunity and freedom of expression in Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup d’état that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office.
This year, Honduras tops the list for threats against journalists and has the second-highest murder rate for journalists in Latin America. But while insecurity in Mexico—still the most dangerous country for journalists in the region—is closely tied to drug trafficking, many critics cite the political motivations behind the swelling violence in Honduras.
The Honduran government blames the killings on “routine street crime” and drug trafficking. With the world’s highest murder rate, that might make sense at first glance. Manuel Torres of the La Prensa newspaper, however, points out that the characteristics of the killings “suggest summary executions instead of common crime.”
In an interview, Torres told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas that the use of illegal firearms, the participation of several suspects, the lack of robbery, the victims’ association with the opposition National Front of Popular Resistance, and the evidence of torture surrounding the deaths all contribute to an organized effort to intimidate critical journalism and opposition freedom of expression. The lack of prosecutions suggests a possible paramilitary operation that enjoys impunity.
“I don’t believe there’s a State policy ordering the killing of journalists and social organizers but that does not excuse the State from its responsibility for what happens,” Torres said.
“The violence is cast as random but the clear majority of the targets have been on journalists, opposition leaders, and urban and rural community radio,” said history professor Dana Frank of UC-Santa Cruz in an interview with the Knight Center. Frank pointed out that while the government may not directly order assassinations, it leverages insecurity in the country as a pretext for increased militarization and consolidating entrenched economic interests.
By framing the insecurity as drug-related, Frank said, the government ignores the true economic roots of crime: unemployment. Honduras has an unemployment rate of 5.1% but nearly one third of the country is underemployed. “There’s barely a functioning economy,” she said. “Young people don’t see a future for themselves.”
While jobs for young people are scarce, the organizers of the 2009 coup find themselves gainfully employed. Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, one of the coup’s principle organizers and former head of the military under President Zelaya until he was fired for refusing to participate in Zelaya’s controversial re-election referendum, was put in charge of the Honduran telecommunications company Hondutel on March 8, 2010, after retiring from the army. He has since expressed interest in running for president in the 2013 elections.
The connection between the military and the killings remains murky but there is a clear history of government interference in opposition and ethnic media. Radio is an essential means of communication for Honduras’ mostly rural population and has been targeted since the coup. The same day that Zelaya, still in his pajamas, was forced into exile on an airplane to Costa Rica , the military occupied Radio Progeso and shut down its signal. Soon after, in August 2009, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) suspended Radio Globo’s broadcasting rights. At the start of 2011, CONATEL effectively outlawed community radio by suspending all low-power broadcast frequencies. Mounting insecurity and violence also shut down Radio Faluma Bimetu/Coco Dulcean, an Afro-Honduran Garifuna radio station.
Following the coup, the de facto government, led by Roberto Micheletti, was a pariah in the Western hemisphere and lost its membership in the Organization of American States. Some groups hoped that Honduras’ leaders could be forced into action if OAS member countries made re-entry conditional on the improvement of freedom of expression. Those hopes were dashed when Honduras was re-admitted to the OAS on June 1, 2011, without any preconditions regarding the press or impunity. President Obama even complimented President Lobo on his “strong commitment to democracy.”
While the Cartagena Accords allowed ousted President Zelaya to return to Honduras and the country once again counts itself as a member of the OAS, the five Honduran journalists killed so far in 2011, coupled with the rising threats, show that the country has yet to start a new chapter. Almost two years after the coup, it seems that little has changed since United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue lamented, “there is no freedom of expression in Honduras […] to criticize the de facto authorities or the coup d’état.”
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