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Honduras: on World Press Freedom Day, continuing impunity for journalist murders and attacks on the media mar advances

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day (3 May), PEN International welcomes the recent convictions for the murders of journalists Aníbal Barrow and Alfredo Villatoro Rivera. However, PEN notes that only one of at least six suspects in the Barrow case has been convicted, the sentencing of Villatoro’s killers has been delayed and those who ordered both murders have yet to be found.  Additionally, five months on, there has been no progress in the investigation into the December 2013 murder of radio station owner and reporter Carlos Argeñal Medina, while a family member seeking justice for his murder has been subjected to intimidation. Of 38 journalists killed in Honduras since 2003, only four cases have seen any convictions, an impunity rate of 90 per cent. Attacks on journalists continue unabated, as evidenced by the murder of another media worker in April – despite the fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered his protection – and the judicial harassment of journalist Julio Ernesto Alvarado who was convicted of criminal defamation. 

PEN International calls on the Honduran authorities to:

  • Expedite a full, impartial and independent investigation into the murder of Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, to make the results public and to bring those responsible to justice;
  • Ensure that appropriate investigative bodies and protocols for crimes committed against journalists and media workers are established, with adequate resourcing, and ensure that all such crimes are fully investigated, prioritising any links with their professional duties;
  • Overturn Julio Ernesto Alvarado’s conviction and sentence for criminal defamation, investigate the threats he has received and to provide him with appropriate protection;
  • Establish an effective protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders in full consultation with civil society;
  • Improve the implementation of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights precautionary measures for journalists and human rights defenders.

 

Please send appeals reiterating PEN’s calls (listed above) to:

Attorney General

Señor Oscar Chinchilla Banegas Ministerio Público
Lomas del Guijarro Avenida República Dominicana Edificio Lomas Plaza II Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Fax +504 2221 5667
Twitter: @MP_Honduras
Salutation: Dear Attorney General / Señor Fiscal General

Minister of Interior

Señor Arturo Corrales Secretaria de Estado en el Despacho de ́ Seguridad
Aldea el Ocotal, Antiguo Local de la Academia Nacional de Policia ANAPO Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Email: comunicacionCNDS@gmail.com
Salutation: Señor Ministro del Interior/ Dear Minister of Interior

Please also send a copy of your appeal to your nearest Honduran diplomatic representative (the contact details for Honduran embassies abroad are listed here: http://embassy.goabroad.com/embassies-of/honduras)

Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 3 June 2014.

PEN International welcomes the recent advances made by the Honduran government in addressing impunity for journalist murders, including convictions in the cases of the June/July 2013 killing of Globo TV news presenter Aníbal Barrow and the 15 May 2012 murder of HRN Radio director Ángel Alfredo Villatoro Rivera. On 14 March 2014, Gabriel Armando Castellanos Pérez was found guilty of killing Barrow; he reportedly faces a maximum of eight years in prison since he was a minor when he committed the crime. On 25 March, Marvín Alonso Gómez and brothers Osman Fernando and Edgardo Francisco Osorio Arguijo were convicted of aggravated abduction and murder of Villatoro and now face life imprisonment. PEN also welcomes the Honduran government’s response to the concerns and recommendations contained in PEN’s joint report Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity during a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on 25 March 2014.

However, PEN notes that at least five other suspects in the Barrow case have still to be tried, the sentencing of Villatoro’s three killers has been delayed to 14 May, and that the intellectual authors of both murders have yet to be found.

Meanwhile, deadly attacks on the media in Honduras continue unabated, as demonstrated by the 11 April murder of media worker Carlos Hilario Mejía Orellana. Mejía, who worked as head of marketing for Radio Progreso, was stabbed to death at his home in El Progreso municipality, Yoro department, in northern Honduras. He had received threats in the past, presumed to be in connection with his work to promote human rights and social justice for Radio Progreso and the Reflection, Investigation and Communication team (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación – ERIC); both the radio station and ERIC are projects of the Society of Jesus (Compañía de Jesús). The IACHR ordered the Honduran government to protect the media worker in 2009, 2010 and 2011. However, the authorities failed to investigate the threats against Mejía and around 17 other members of Radio Progreso who were also awarded IACHR precautionary measures following the 2009 coup, or to provide them with effective protection. On 14 July 2011, a correspondent for Radio Progreso, Nery Jeremías Orellana, was shot dead; his murder remains unsolved.

In fact, of 38 journalists murdered in Honduras since 2003 – 32 of which have occurred since the coup d’état that ousted President José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 – only 10 cases have been prosecuted and just four have resulted in a conviction, according to figures provided by the government during the hearing at the IACHR in March. Impunity thus remains the norm in 89.5 per cent of these cases, due to inadequate investigations resulting from under-resourcing, bureaucratic ineptitude, blame-shifting and denial.

01A case in point is Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, the last journalist to fall victim to the violence gripping the country. Almost five months after his fatal shooting in December 2013, the investigation into his murder has stalled while a family member seeking justice for the crime has been subjected to intimidation and harassment.

Owner of Christian station Vida Televisión and correspondent for opposition stations Globo TV and Radio Globo in Danlí, Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina was shot and killed in his home by unidentified gunmen. He had covered local government corruption in the months before his murder, and had reported receiving death threats. He had also previously been threatened for revealing corruption in local hospitals. Argeñal was also a member of Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) and Vida Televisión had voiced support for the party. LIBRE is the political wing of the National Front of Popular Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular – FNRP) a coalition of politicians, unions and indigenous groups led by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former President Zelaya.

Some 150 days on, Argeñal’s murder remains unsolved. The journalist’s brother, Mario Argeñal, who has been active in demanding justice for the killing, has told PEN that there has been no progress in the investigation and the overall impression is that there is absolutely no interest on the part of the state in solving the crime. According to Mario Argeñal, the police have not even taken basic steps such as looking into the contacts on the journalist’s mobile phone and summoning suspects for investigation, while the person in charge of the case is apparently occupied with other tasks. Mario Argeñal says the family’s requests for the case to be assigned to investigators from outside the area for fear that local police might be corrupt or implicated in the crime have been ignored, as has a local rights group’s recommendation that the case should be led by a Special Prosecutor.

Mario Argeñal was subjected to intimidation and surveillance by vehicles circling and keeping watch on his house, in December and February 2014. He had given several interviews to national media on his brother’s murder, linking it to his reporting on corruption in local government and had also been liaising with the authorities to seek justice.

Globo TV and Radio Globo have often been targeted in the past. Two journalists for Globo TV were murdered last year: presenter Aníbal Barrow in June/ July (see above) and cameraman Manuel Murillo Varela in October 2013. Another journalist killed in December 2011, Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, had also previously worked for Radio Globo. While one of at least six suspects in the Barrow case has been convicted, the other two murders remain unsolved.

02Moreover, Julio Ernesto Alvarado, director and presenter of the news programme ‘Mi Nación’ on Globo TV, has been subjected to threats and judicial harassment. In December 2013, Alvarado, was sentenced on appeal to a 16-month prison sentence and ban on practising journalism for covering allegations of corruption at a local university in 2006. The case was brought by university deacon Belinda Flores, whose alleged involvement in influence peddling and falsification of university degrees had been covered by three editions of ‘Mi Nación’ in 2006.

Alvarado and two university teachers who had appeared on Alvarado’s show to discuss the allegations had been cleared of the charges in March 2011. However Flores appealed the decision and in December 2013 the Supreme Court of Justice in the capital Tegucigalpa convicted Alvarado of criminal defamation – despite the fact that the non-guilty verdict was upheld for the two teachers and that the Court took as proven that Flores was in fact implicated in some wrongdoing.

Following his conviction, Alvarado was subject to harassment and threats in early 2014 via his Facebook page and that of journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza, who made various posts protesting Alvarado’s sentence. One post to Alvarado’s Facebook account dated 7 February threatened him and his family members with death. PEN International protested Alvarado’s conviction as politically motivated and called on the authorities to investigate the threats against him. Alvarado previously endured months of threats and harassment which culminated in a suspected attempt on his life, and led him to suspend his radio programme on Radio Globo in March 2013.

As a result of this intimidation and a lack of faith in the impartiality of the justice system, Alvarado decided not to appeal his conviction, opting instead to pay a fine of10 lempiras per day of his sentence (around US$250 in total) in order to avoid imprisonment. At a hearing on 28 April 2014, the judge also lifted the ban on practising journalism. Following the hearing, Alvarado thanked the press for following his case and appealed for unity among journalists, stating: “We must not think of ourselves as journalists of different ideologies, since we are united by the fight to defend our right to express ourselves freely. If we are isolated things will be worse and we could all be imprisoned.”

However, the battle is not over. The plaintiff’s lawyer announced that she would appeal the judge’s decision to overturn the work ban and that she also intended to launch civil defamation proceedings against Alvarado. If such a law suit is successful, the plaintiff could be awarded large damages which could ultimately lead to imprisonment for Alvarado should he fail to pay.

For further details please contact Tamsin Mitchell, Americas Researcher/Campaigner, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Brownlow House, 50-51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER Tel: +44 (0) 207 405 0338 Fax +44 (0) 207 405 0339 email: tamsin.mitchell@pen-international.org

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