On the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, LatAm Journalism Review highlights four emblematic cases in the region that remain largely unpunished.
Wendy Funes, journalist and director of the media outlet Reporteros de Investigacion, is convinced that crimes against journalists in Honduras will only be solved if journalism itself investigates them.
So, when journalist Leonardo Gabriel Hernández was killed on March 17, 2019, Funes and her team went to the town of Nacaome in southern Honduras to investigate what Hernández, host of the program “El Pueblo Habla” (“The People Speak”) on Valle TV, was working on when he was murdered.
“We found that among the criticisms he made about politicians he had also made requests for information about a highway that at that time cost 20 million lempiras – US$1 million at the exchange rate at that time – and that appeared completed on paper, but the physical work had not advanced,” Funes told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "Our investigation indicated that Gabriel's investigations and questioning of politicians in the area had caused discomfort."
However, the line of investigation that the Honduran public prosecutor's office followed was related to drugs and gangs, and not to his journalistic work, Funes explained. And not even this line of investigation was developed, Funes said. To this day, there is no information about who were the actual perpetrators and masterminds of his killing.
The impunity in Hernández’s murder is the norm for crimes against journalists in Honduras. According to 2022 figures from the National Human Rights Commissioner (Conadeh for its acronym in Spanish), 90% of murders of journalists in Honduras go unpunished.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has recorded the killings of 37 press workers in Honduras between 1992 and 2023. Among those is Hernández’s murder, which is classified as having “complete impunity.”
Although Honduras is not on CPJ’s 2023 Global Impunity Index, the statistics for Honduran crimes against journalists are “really tragic,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director.
“Impunity is also very high,” he told LJR. “The problem we have in Honduras is the difficulty of investigating cases. It’s very complicated.”
Funes likewise noted the challenges of investigating the case of Hernández and those of other crimes against journalists. “Authorities don’t even want to give us access to information,” she said.
Nearly five years after the murder of Hernández, it’s not clear what has happened to the investigation being conducted by the public prosecutor’s Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Life.
“Several investigative procedures were ordered, like taking statements from families, neighbors in the vicinity of the event. Expert reports were ordered, the results of which are still pending,” the Special Prosecutor’s Office told LJR.
Because Hernández’ death is still under investigation, the Special Prosecutor’s Office would not give further details, such as about the status of the three suspects arrested for allegedly carrying out his killing. At the time, it was reported that the suspects were members of the Mara Savatrucha gang and that the motorcycle allegedly driven by the killers was found in their possession.
“Nothing was ever known. Nothing was talked about. Complete silence,” Leonel García, a Nacaome journalist who had worked with Hernández for 12 years, told LJR. “Perpetrators? None. Nobody is imprisoned here. Rampant impunity in this country and in this department… The masterminds are loose, free, nothing has happened to them, nothing has been found out. They knew what to do.”
Hernández and García shared the same vision of what journalism should be: to be the voice of the people and demand that authorities fulfill their duties. They started their careers together on a TV program they created, “Dígalo como quiera” (“Say it Like You Want”). From there, they each continued with his own program–Hernández on television and García on radio–working together to cover the news.
Their investigations ranged from corruption cases and alleged links between officials and drug trafficking to disputes over land ownership. For example, Hernández had reported on the alleged theft of a vast piece of land from farmers and fishermen by officials and Congress members.
“We always felt that bullets were following us because of the way we did journalism, [a journalism] of the people, because in this country if you are on the side of the people, it is a crime,” García said.
One of Funes and García’s main criticisms of the government was the lack of protection for Hernández, who had reported to the National Protection Mechanism for Journalists that he was being threatened and spied on.
Although the Secretariat of Human Rights did not respond to comment for this article, in a statement to LJR in 2020 the representative of the General Protection System said that the Mechanism did not receive a protection request from Hernández. It’s something that both García and Funes deny.
“For me it was a very strong stab in the back. The murder of my right arm and my soul brother,” said García, who received protection measures after Hernández's murder. “The same institution that gives me protection, the same State told him 'you don’t qualify.' Listen to me, how are you not going to qualify if we were both on the knife's edge! They were chasing us. They were watching us to kill us. Because we were touching on transcendental themes of looting.”
Funes said she believes that in murder cases, a journalist’s work is usually cast aside as a motive for the crime.
“In the case of journalists, it seems that the authorities investigate these crimes out of prejudice,” Funes said.
Although García tries to continue Hernández' legacy, which he said was a promise they made to each other, the truth is that this murder silenced their town.
“The repercussion of a crime like this and the subsequent impunity is that journalists report from fear or that they ultimately censor themselves to avoid retaliation from the local authorities. Anyone would think the authorities are in charge of public policy to reduce impunity. That would happen in a decent country, but in Honduras, many times the authorities are also the ones who manage the organized crime cells,” Funes said.
For García, progress in the investigation of Hernández' murder will only be achieved by international organizations exerting pressure.
“I only ask and demand, from the international organizations because there is no national investigation here, that they come to Honduras and go see that file on Gabriel Hernández: who murdered him or who is imprisoned and has not yet been convicted,” he said. “And I also ask international organizations to come and review my measures in this mechanism. I am worried."