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Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity Action

Monday 27 January 2014 - 12:00am

23 January 2014

Honduras must end lethal violence against journalists and climate of impunity


“Violence always comes first. But close behind, almost like a sick twin, is silence, the need for silence so violence may continue, so death may reign, so fear may preside. […] Such is the case of Honduras, where the persecution and murder of dissident and investigative journalists is so systematic and deliberate and persistent that it demands an international response equally persistent and deliberate and systematic. We should not let those who risk their lives for the truth to stand alone in Honduras.” Ariel Dorfman, in support of Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity

Journalists who cover organized crime, government corruption and other sensitive issues are increasingly facing threats and lethal attacks in Honduras, with almost complete impunity for perpetrators, says PEN International in a new report released today in partnership with PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity is published ahead of the inauguration of the new President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, on Monday 27 January and will form the basis for campaigning by PEN International in 2014.
Read the executive summary and recommendations here
Read the full report here

The report documents the rise in violence against journalists following the coup d’état that ousted President José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, and the failure of both state and international mechanisms to investigate and punish those responsible. Since June 2009 at least 32 Honduran journalists – most working for the broadcast media – have been killed, yet the vast majority remain unsolved. Journalists such as these:

Erick Alexander Martínez Ávila, also an activist for gay rights and the Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party which contested the 2013 presidential elections – kidnapped and strangled to death in May 2012 (see Background below for more information on Martínez)
José Noel Canales Lagos, journalist for the Hondudiario website – shot dead by unknown assailants while driving to work in August 2012 after receiving multiple death threats
Manuel Murillo Varela, official cameraman for several public figures, including former President Zelaya and more recently for the opposition station TV Globo; also a member of LIBRE – found dead on 24 October 2013, despite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) having ordered the Honduran government to protect him after he was kidnapped and tortured in 2010.

Many more journalists in Honduras continue to work in a climate of fear and self-censorship. “Given the lack of response from a State which sponsors impunity and is often responsible for the violence, many journalists have decided to keep quiet in order to stay alive,” says award-winning journalist and human rights defender Dina Meza. “‘Will I be next?’ is a question you ask yourself every day in journalism,” adds Meza, who has been the victim of harassment and threats since 2006, none of which have been properly investigated (for more information on Meza, see Background below).

A case in point is Julio Alvarado, who was forced to suspend his current affairs programme on opposition station Radio Globo in March 2013 after months of threats and surveillance culminated in a failed assassination attempt. The incident was never investigated despite being reported to the authorities; Alvarado suspects that members of the police or the military may have been involved (see p. 20 of report for profile of Alvarado).

‘Honduras is in extreme crisis. This ground-breaking, incisive PEN report details the deadly coupling of corruption and impunity that is destroying Honduras. It is urgent that Honduras and the international community work together to strengthen the rule of law in the country,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Increasing levels of violence and widespread impunity has made Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world. While transnational drug cartels are, in part, responsible for the rising homicide rate, much of the current crisis of violence is produced by state authorities, according to the new report.

Corruption within the police force is alarmingly high, simultaneously undermining trust among state agencies, damaging public confidence in key institutions and ultimately hampering the institutional capacity of the justice system. There are too many agencies that notionally address the problem of violence and impunity, resulting in a situation where no one is accountable for ensuring justice for victims and their families.

‘The current climate of pervasive impunity in Honduras is the result of failures in accountability for serious human rights abuses spanning decades. Violence thrives where impunity prevails. Honduras will continue to be locked in a cycle of impunity and violence until there is meaningful accountability,’ said Carmen Cheung, acting Director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law.

The recent wave of murderous violence against journalists has been met with a familiar mixture of inadequate resources, bureaucratic ineptitude, blame-shifting and denial. Journalists’ murders are rarely adequately investigated or solved: of the 38 journalists murdered since 2003, only two convictions have been obtained.

PEN International, PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law are calling on the Honduran government to fully investigate all cases of murdered journalists; empower existing state institutions and mechanisms and establish new ones where needed, to ensure that all members of the media are afforded the full protection of the law.

The report also makes a series of recommendations to the Honduran media and the international community for the protection of journalists in the country, including a call for donor states such as Canada and the USA to work with Honduras on the issues.
Read the full recommendations here (pp. 4-5)

‘No change will come from the Honduran government acting alone,’ said Tasleem Thawar, Executive Director of PEN Canada, ‘Every country and international organization with interests in Honduras - whether economic, security-related, social or cultural – must tie their support to Honduras meeting its human rights obligations.’

“We should not let those who risk their lives for the truth to stand alone in Honduras,” insists writer and playwright Ariel Dorfman. “A campaign in their favor such as PEN International is organizing – part of a larger effort to call attention to so many violations of the rights and lives of reporters and writers all over Latin America – will, at least, provide a slight shield against bullets and cruelty and death squads. Yes, at least those who refuse to be silenced will know that they are not alone.”


Send appeals: Write to the incoming President of Honduras, demanding that his government:

• Ensure that appropriate investigative bodies and protocols for crimes committed against journalists are established, with adequate resourcing, and ensure that all crimes against journalists are fully investigated, prioritising any links with their professional duties

• Empower the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights to investigate and prosecute the murders of journalists and human rights defenders and ensure that its office receives sufficient financial, human and technical resources to carry out its work.

• Ensure that any new legal mechanisms intended to improve journalist security, such as the proposed Bill for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators and Justice Operators, come into effect with adequate financial, human and technical resources, as well as political will, in order to guarantee effective implementation.

• Improve the implantation of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) precautionary measures for journalists and human rights defenders

We encourage you to print out the report’s full list of recommendations and send them as an appendix to your letters – click here (pp. 4-5)

Send appeals to:
President Juan Orlando Hernández
Casa Presidencial, Barrio Las Lomas
Boulevard Juan Pablo II
Fax: +504 2290 5088
Twitter: @JuanOrlandoH (mention #HondurasEndImpunity or #HondurasBastaImpunidad)

Share the report, this action paper and the infographics highlighting the cases of individual murdered journalists with your networks, including on Facebook, Twitter (#HondurasEndImpunity or #HondurasBastaImpunidad) and other social media

Send the report to your nearest Honduran embassy and the Honduras desk of your government’s foreign office, requesting a meeting to discuss PEN’s concerns in person

Identify a journalist within your Centre who will write an article or opinion piece on PEN’s concerns to place in your national media (please send us copies of any published)


• Violence against journalists and impunity in Honduras was the subject of a PEN International resolution in 2010 – read here.
• Honduras was also one of three focus countries – along with Mexico and Brazil – of PEN International’s 2012 campaign Write Against Impunity.
• PEN’s resulting anthology Write against Impunity features two pieces dedicated to murdered journalist and human rights defender Erick Alexander Martínez Ávila (see above): the essay ‘The Voice They Tried to Strangle’ by Erick Tejada Carbajal (also available here in English and Spanish) and the poem ‘Valour’ by Claudia Sánchez (who is cited in Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity) (also available here in English and Spanish). Also on Martínez, read Cathal Sheerin’s 2012 article for the Huffington Post, ‘Honduras: Killing Free Expression’
• Also from Write against Impunity: read Gloria Guardia’s 2012 essay on the roots of impunity in Honduras, ‘Impunity in Honduras – Why?’ (English; Spanish)
Dina Meza is a recipient of the 2014 Oxfam-Novib/ PEN International Free Expression Award and has been nominated for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2014. She was one of the cases featured for PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer in November 2013 – read her profile here.
• Download a pdf version of this action paper here

For further information, please contact Tamsin Mitchell, Americas Researcher/ Campaigner, at PEN International, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338; Fax: +44 (0) 20 7405 0339; email: