Journalists are being murdered and threatened at an alarming rate in Honduras, including indigenous broadcasters according to recent testimony before members of the United States Congress.
In the last three years 24 journalists have been murdered, the offices of many broadcasters have been shut down or raided by official forces and some media outlets have been bombed or burned by as yet unidentified persons in the struggling Central American country.
"And this is the most terrible thing about these deaths: in Honduras today, a person who works in front of a microphone (or a computer or a camera) only has to publish or disseminate some news that negatively affects the interests of a powerful person with money and influence in the community…for the life of that reporter to be endangered," said Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, one of the activists who testified on July 25th in Washington, D.C. at the World Threats to Media Freedom Hearing at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC), a human rights organization comprised of federal legislators from both parties.
While August 1's session at the TLHRC included testimony on repression of media in several countries, the information on the heavily indigenous Honduras came from three presenters.
Rev. Moreno Coto of Radio Progreso, Alexander Main of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) and Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) all gave testimony to the Commission about the dangers facing journalists in Honduras.
Each of the activists had gathered information from personal interviews and a variety of sources and noted the increase in violence started with the military coup against former President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009; but it was Rev. Moreno Coto who had first hand experience.
Rev. Moreno Coto is a veteran human rights advocate who helps operate Radio Progreso, a community radio station in northern Honduras supported by the Jesuits and dedicated to information, education and youth training. This community station was also a target of the repression.
In an interview August 1, the Jesuit activist explained that from the day of the coup onwards, reporters and staff continue to be threatened or harassed.
"Radio Progreso was attacked by 25 soldiers on June 28, 2009, at 10 a.m.," he stated. "...and various reporters had received death threats on various occasions until June of 2010, the date on which we ceased to receive direct threats but an atmosphere of indirect harassment has always existed since then..."
Rev. Moreno Coto continued in saying that "...the people who have power in the region say that in any moment something will happen to the radio station for being in defense of the rural people and the sectors that oppose the government and businessmen."
He added that indigenous stations such as The Lenca Voice and Radio Guarajambala, which have broadcast stories highlighting government and business corruption, have received threats as well and on some occasions their offices and transmitters have been damaged.
In his testimony before the THLRC, Rev. Moreno Coto had also emphasized the dangers of reporting on issues affecting powerful interests.
"The risk increases when these journalists and social communicators touch on unresolved controversial issues, such as the defense of—or demand for—land, natural resources, health, or education; or when they talk about having a tax policy where everyone contributes to the government according to their profits, income, and property; or about the need for impartiality in the law; or simply the need for a justice system that works; or the fact that people are demanding democratization, access to public information, and access to the media."
One of the many accounts of murders included as part of Rev. Moreno Coto's testimony was also discussed in the presentation made by Alexander Main, a human rights analyst and Senior Associate for International Policy with the CEPR.
In his testimony Main wrote that on "March 24, 2010 – Nahum Palacios Arteaga, anchor for Channel 5 in the Aguan and well known as an anti-coup journalist, was shot and killed along with his girlfriend, Dr. Yoleny Sanchez (she died from her injuries two weeks later). Honduran troops came to the station the day of the coup, and threatened Palacios and detained him along with three other Channel 5 employees. Following this and other incidents, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHRC) had ordered Honduran authorities to provide him protection."
Main noted in his presentation that the IAHRC had issued 400 such orders in 2009 and 2010 (including one for Rev. Moreno Coto). United Nations officials had also "urged the Honduran authorities to protect threatened journalists."
"Despite these repeated appeals, many of the journalists the IAHCR wanted placed under protection were attacked and sometimes killed," according to Main's testimony.
For Main, and the other activists, one of the main problems that contribute to the ongoing murder and intimidation is that the killers have not been brought to justice. Main asserted that the Honduran police are "largely corrupt" and also implicated in a number of abuses according to Honduran human rights advocates.
He quoted former Honduran Police Commissioner Maria Luisa Borjas, a critic of the Honduran police, who said in November of 2011 that, "It's scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members."
Main also referred to sources such as: Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, who charged that 40 percent of Honduran police are involved in organized crime; the Honduran government itself and the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) stated that there have been over 10,000 complaints against Honduran security forces since the election of President Porfirio Lobo in November of 2009; and United Nations observers described the impunity of armed actors as "pervasive."
This resulting lack of accountability as well as the continuing violence has created an atmosphere of fear noted Robert Mahoney of the CPJ.
"The climate is so intimidating that reporters told CPJ that they don't dare probe deeply into crucial issues like drug trafficking or government corruption. Many print reporters have removed their bylines from their stories. Tiempo, a San Pedro Sula-based daily newspaper that consistently criticizes the government, has shut down its investigative unit due to safety concerns. Some reporters claim the only safe way to tell the truth about Honduras is to write a novel," wrote Mahoney.
While Main and Mahoney's testimonies focused on the violence committed against journalists by police, military and unknown perpetrators, Rev. Moreno Coto saw the problem in terms of a massive abuse of power in a fractured state.
"The institutions of the state have been so crushed that it is easy to manipulate them in favor of groups that already have power, money, and other privileges. The Honduran state is being used as an instrument to strengthen the impunity of the most powerful. If social communicators in a municipality decide to publish news that impacts the interests of a person or a family with power and money, that person or family can easily hire a couple of hit men to eliminate whoever had the temerity to mention them," the activist wrote.
"The government knows this is happening, but its institutions and officials have become a shield that protects the strong and makes sure they are immune to prosecution so they can act with complete impunity."
Since the presenters gave their testimony on July 25, the TLHRC has not yet commented on the tragedies in Honduras. However, in a brief interview with Commission Co-chair, Rep. James P. McGovern expressed his worries about the violence.
"I am extremely concerned about ongoing violence against journalists in Honduras and the pervasive culture of impunity. I will continue to call attention to these abuses and I urge the administration to condemn them, and to ensure that the government of Honduras is upholding its human rights commitments under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012.”
The TLHRC is composed of legislators from both parties and is set up "to promote, defend and advocate internationally recognized human rights norms in a nonpartisan manner, both within and outside of Congress, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights instruments in particular," according to its mission statement.