Honduras: The Deadly Threats to Free Expression

On 8 September 2011, unidentified men shot to death sixty-two-year-old radio journalist, Medardo Flores. The attack took place in Puerto Cortés, 300km from the capital Tegucigalpa. His killers pumped nine bullets into Flores’ body, and in doing so, brought the total number of journalists murdered in Honduras since 2007 to twenty-four.

Flores was a member of Radio UNO, a San Pedro Sula-based broadcasting collective that provides critical analysis of socio-political issues in Honduras. Since it declared its opposition to the right-wing coup that deposed President Zelaya in 2009, the staff of Radio UNO has suffered attacks, kidnappings and death threats, with little protection provided by the police. On 27 April 2011, the Director of Radio UNO, Arnulfo Aguilar, survived an assassination attempt similar to the one that killed Flores.

As a journalist critical of the current Honduran government, and as a Zelaya-supporter, Flores was doubly vulnerable in a country where the rate of attacks on members of the press and the political opposition is accelerating. He is the sixteenth journalist to be murdered in Honduras in the last eighteen months. Many more have suffered beatings and death threats, with government officials – including the army and the police – regularly implicated in these attacks.

The coup of 2009 produced an illegal regime that ruled by force, suppressed opposition and censored the press. It was eventually succeeded in 2010 by President Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s government – still unrecognized by many countries – which immediately offered an amnesty to all those involved in the coup. Despite the change of government, little changed on the ground – at least in terms of the violence. Journalists such as Flores who still seek to expose those implicated in the coup and in the repression that followed, can at the very least expect a death threat.

So too can the newspapers and broadcasters that focus on police corruption, secrecy in the public administration, or criticism of current large-scale privatization projects.

As recently as 6 December 2011, Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, a reporter for the radio news station Cadena Hondureña de Noticias, was shot to death while travelling in car belonging to a member of the armed forces. The previous day, in an unrelated incident, armed men fired shots at the offices of the daily newspaper La Tribuna, seriously wounding a security guard. According to the newspaper’s editor, attacks on La Tribuna staff are a regular occurrence.

Unsurprisingly, self-censorship in the press is a growing trend.

As a signatory of the American Convention of Human Rights, Honduras is obliged to protect its citizens’ right to free expression. At its most recent Universal Periodic Review (November 2010), Honduras committed itself to defending this right and pledged to investigate attacks on journalists and other media workers.

However, one year later, even President Lobo recognizes that Honduras is failing in this regard, with very few assaults or murders investigated properly.

Lobo publicly acknowledged this in November 2011. He also called for a ‘review’ of free expression and, tellingly, seemed to make a distinction between ‘libertad de expresión [y] defensa de los intereses particulares’ (freedom of expression and the defence of special interests).

Exactly what he meant by this isn’t clear, but it gives little reason for hope: leaders who make this kind of distinction too often end up trying to deny opposition opinion its voice, as if citing the ‘special interests’ of an opponent were justification enough for exempting them from the protection guaranteed by a state’s legal commitment to freedom of expression.

by Cathal Sheerin