Violence against journalists increases in Honduras while impunity reigns, says IACHR report

About 96 percent of the murders of journalists and other media workers in Honduras remain in impunity, according to figures received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that recently published the report “Situation of Human Rights in Honduras.”

Although the IACHR recognized that the high levels of violence in the country affected the entire population, it considered that journalists and communicators are an “especially vulnerable group” because of "the grave situation of insecurity in which they work.”

Violence against journalists and communicators increased in the country after the coup d’état in 2009 during the government of Manuel Zelaya, the report highlighted. According to the report, 50 media workers have been murdered between 2003 and 2014. In the first three months of 2015, the IACHR had already been notified of 8 homicides.

According to report figures, the authorities have issued guilty verdicts in only 4 of the 50 cases. And in none of the cases have the intellectual authors of the crimes been identified.

“The impunity in these crimes is the result of the ineffectiveness and institutional weakness of the agencies in charge of investigating and prosecuting these crimes; the failure to meet international standards in carrying out effective investigations; and the high levels of corruption and influence of criminal organizations in the security forces and the judiciary,” the report noted.

For the Commission, organized crime, in alleged complicity with public servants and members of the security forces, is the greatest threat to journalists, particularly to those who cover issues related to corruption, narcotrafficking, organized crime, public security and territorial disputes.

One of the most worrisome aspects is that as a result of ineffective investigations, it has not been possible to determine if these crimes are related to their professional work. However, many times the investigations drive the idea that the murders are not linked to their work, some organizations in Honduras informed the IACHR.

“The authorities should not exclude the practice of journalism as a motive for the murder and/or aggression before completing their investigation,” the report says.

Beyond the murders, the report also documented an increase in the number of threats and aggressions against journalists. The majority of these cases are not formally reported because of the lack of trust in the authorities.

Some of the cases that are mentioned in the report are that of the Radio Globo and Globo TV journalists, who constantly receive death threats and are harassed. Their director, David Romero, has not only received death threats after the publication of a report about the alleged misappropriation of funds from an official institute, he is also embroiled in a legal process as he is accused of defamation, a charge for which he could face up to eight years in prison.

Given this context, the IACHR underscored the need to implement a specialized protection mechanism for journalists. Because of this, the report saw the passage of the Protection Law for Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Justice Operators in April 2015 as a step forward.

For the Commission, this law establishes some positive aspects such as the expansion of the definition of journalist, the participation of members of the press and civil society in the National Protection Council, the establishment of norms to implement precautionary measures, as well as a swift process to protect journalists “who face an imminent risk of serious injuries.”

According to information provided by the government of Honduras to the IACHR, by July 2015, there were 21 journalists who had internal security measures granted after petitioning the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights.

Freedom of speech, beyond aggressions

The report also details other ways through which freedom of speech is being affected in the country. For example, the lack of diversity in media outlets was one of the concerns expressed by the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Speech.

The organization put emphasis on the difficulty that community radio stations face in accessing concessions, which it says has promoted media concentration.

The use of legal actions against freedom of speech also were addressed by the report. According to the IACHR, the number of penal actions for defamation and libel has grown in the last few years.

On this topic, the most important case has been that of Julio Ernesto Alvarado, who in December 2013 was convicted by the Supreme Court for the crime of “defamation and expressions constituting slander.” Alvarado was sentenced to one year and four months in prison and prohibited from working as a journalist during his sentence, among other provisions.

As a result of this case, the IACHR issued precautionary measures to benefit Alvarado, which have not been taken into consideration by the State, according to the report.

Honduras is considering a legislative proposal to reform the Penal Code for the purpose of decriminalizing libel, slander, and defamation.

Although the Commission saw this as a step forward, it invited the government to advance this reform process to ensure that "criminal law is not used as a tool for intimidation which affects freedom of expression, especially when used by public officials to silence criticism."

Access to public information, as well as a law that allows surveillance of communications were also analyzed in the document.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.