Pressure Mounts on Honduras as Journalist Death Toll Rises

(IPS) – Honduran President Porfirio Lobo plans to seek help from police forces in Colombia and the United States to try to solve the murders of seven journalists committed in the space of less than two months, which will also be investigated by a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights next month.

Jorge Orellana, popularly known as “Georgino”, was gunned down on Apr. 20, just a week after radio announcer Luis Chévez met a similar fate on Apr. 13.

Five fellow journalists — Joseph Andoni Hernández Ochoa, David Meza, Nahum Palacios, José Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juárez — were shot and killed in March.

Five of the seven slain reporters worked outside the capital. Bayardo Mairena and Suárez were shot and killed in the northeastern province of Olancho while investigating a drug trafficking ring, according to unofficial reports, although the police have yet to comment on the possible motives behind their murders.

All of the journalists were killed in drive-by shootings by unknown gunmen riding on motorbikes, who fired on each victim over a dozen times. According to the police and the Observatory on Violence, a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the public National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), this is a modus operandi typical of hired killers.

Orellana worked for a television station in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, 250 kilometres north of Tegucigalpa, and also taught journalism classes at UNAH.

His murder has stepped up local and international pressure on Lobo, who returned to Honduras on Wednesday from a tour of the United States, where he visited universities and met with business leaders.

Lobo said Honduras would seek help from other countries with greater experience in criminal investigation to identify the killers of the seven journalists. He highlighted the work in this area of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in the United States.

Colombia, the other country where Lobo plans to request assistance, has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists for decades, and is currently engulfed in a scandal over a state-run intelligence apparatus set up to spy on and sabotage government opponents, activists and journalists.

A delegation from the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will arrive in Honduras in the second week of May to investigate the killings.

The delegation will also look into reports of harassment and intimidation made by members of the National Popular Resistance Front, which headed up the protests against the Jun. 28, 2009 overthrow of former president Manuel Zelaya.

Added to these incidents are the death threats received by Father Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest, activist and radio station director, for his protection of a young woman reportedly raped by police in August 2009 in the midst of demonstrations against the coup.

Moreno, the director of Radio Progreso (based in the city of the same name) and an outspoken opponent of the coup, was spirited out of the country last weekend, his Jesuit colleagues informed IPS. The Jesuit community in Honduras works primarily in the northern part of the country.

Deputy Attorney General Ricardo Rodríguez told IPS that all of these incidents are being investigated, and that his office is working with other government agencies on a response to the latest annual report from the IACHR, which placed Honduras for the first time ever on the list of countries where the human rights situation “warranted special attention” in 2009, alongside Colombia, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela.

The report details the human rights abuses committed in the aftermath of Zelaya’s ouster, including the climate of threats and intimidation faced by the country’s journalists.

“We have a month to respond to the report, but if this mission comes in May to investigate the killings of the journalists, that’s even better — we will cooperate and we will not hide anything,” said Rodríguez.

Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez stated this week that the journalists’ murders were not connected to their professional activity, but he did not offer any other possible motives.

Speaking with IPS, Álvarez reiterated this claim and urged journalists to “be cautious,” given the high level of insecurity in the country, where an average of 14 people meet with a violent death every day. The majority of these murders are attributed to drug trafficking gangs.

Álvarez has been summoned to appear before Congress next week to report on the progress made so far in the investigations.

The minister’s claims have been challenged by the journalism community, however.

This week, major media outlets launched a campaign to pressure the government to clear up the murders, while reporters are collecting signatures through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter for a petition condemning the continued impunity enjoyed by the killers and demanding transparency in the investigation of the murders.

Elán Reyes, president of the Journalists’ Association of Honduras, condemned the killings but also called for journalists to exercise caution and “self-regulation”. His comments were harshly criticised as an implicit call for self-censorship, although he denied this interpretation.

Catalina Botero, Organisation of American States Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, stated on Apr. 20 in San Salvador that Honduras is in a state of “red alert” and described it as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist today.