• Rash of journalist murders occurs in lawless, politically charged climate.
• In murder investigations, authorities inattentive and dismissive.
3: Months between Nahúm Palacios Arteaga’s murder and the time authorities conducted an autopsy.
Six journalists were murdered in a seven-week span, with three more slain by year’s end, a rash of killings that was made all the more shocking by the government’s careless and dismissive response. Inattentive and botched investigative work yielded the arrests of but two suspects in all of the killings, and a judge quickly dismissed charges against them. CPJ found that at least three of the victims were slain in direct relation to their work, and it continued to investigate the other cases in late year.
THE PRESS: 2010
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In the midst of the killing spree, Minister of Security Oscar Álvarez broadly dismissed professional motives. “I guarantee that in all of them there is nothing to indicate that it is because of their journalistic work,” he was quoted as saying by the Tegucigalpa newspaper La Tribuna. CPJ Representative Mike O’Connor traveled to Honduras soon after to investigate the killings, producing a special report in July that found an alarming climate of impunity in which authorities were unable or unwilling to investigate the crimes and arrest the perpetrators. In one case, the government ignored a directive from the Organization of American States to provide protection to a journalist under threat–a prominent television anchor who was later gunned down. Although CPJ’s investigation did not reveal a political conspiracy or coordinated efforts behind the murders, it found that the murders occurred in a politically charged atmosphere of violence and lawlessness.
The violence reflected a societal breakdown that followed the June 2009 military-supported coup that ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya, CPJ found. After five months in which the country was led by an interim government, presidential elections in November 2009 brought the conservative Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo to power. But Lobo encountered significant domestic opposition as he took office in January 2010, with critics decrying his election as the tainted product of an illegal coup. Zelaya supporters, journalists, and other critics reported ongoing repression in 2010, including violent attacks. Numerous journalists told CPJ they felt they could be targets if they were seen as opponents of the government or powerful business figures. Human rights groups defending peasants in land disputes said their leaders had been abducted or killed by government agents or private groups.
A U.S. State Department assessment of human rights in Honduras, published in March 2010, spoke in unusually harsh terms of a country with which America has had friendly relations. Referring to politically motivated murders, it said, “Following the June coup, there were reports that the de facto regime or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” The report also depicted a bleak landscape for those who might speak out against the regime: “A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the country’s news media.”
The government’s investigation into the murder of Nahúm Palacios Arteaga reflected a breakdown in the rule of law, CPJ found. Palacios, 34, a Tocoa television anchor who opposed the 2009 coup, had encountered such severe harassment from the military that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, ordered the Honduran government to protect the journalist’s life. It was one of more than 400 such orders issued for journalists and activists in Honduras in 2009 and 2010. Although required by international treaty to follow the directives, the Honduran government appeared to ignore most of the protective orders, including the one covering Palacios. By reporting on drug traffickers and taking up the cause of peasants in land disputes, Palacios had made plenty of other enemies, CPJ research showed.
On the night of March 14, gunmen lying in wait at Palacios’ home unleashed a fusillade that killed the journalist and a companion. The law enforcement system that should have been providing protection to Palacios then failed to properly investigate his killing. No autopsy was immediately conducted, no crime scene photos were taken, and no forensic evidence was gathered from the scene, authorities acknowledged in interviews with CPJ. Three months after Palacios was buried, investigators exhumed the body and conducted an autopsy at graveside. Prosecutor Arody Reyes told CPJ that the autopsy was suddenly important because the Honduran government had enlisted the help of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Local investigators, Reyes said, needed to show their U.S. counterparts some evidence.
CPJ’s investigation also found work-related motives in the murders of David Meza Montesinos and Joseph Hernández Ochoa.
A reporter for broadcaster Radio América and local TV stations, Meza was shot on the doorstep of his home in La Ceiba on March 11. Like Palacios, Meza had specialized in helping people who thought they had been mistreated by the government or businesses, colleagues told CPJ. Not long before he was murdered, the journalist had begun harshly criticizing local police for alleged corruption and incompetence.
Hernández, 25, host of an entertainment and news show on Channel 5, was shot on March 1 as he was driving in Tegucigalpa with Karol Cabrera, one of the country’s most provocative journalists. Cabrera, who was seriously injured, said she believed the assailants had targeted her for her pro-government radio commentary. She also told CPJ that she had received a stream of death threats from leftist groups; in June, she and her children moved to Canada.
In its investigation, CPJ spoke with several sources who said Meza and Palacios had each sought money from newsmakers in exchange for favorable coverage. Those same sources, however, said the practice was not likely at play in the killings. Allegations of extortion involving journalists are not uncommon, CPJ found.
After CPJ’s report received widespread media coverage, the Honduran government objected to the findings. In an August letter to The New York Times, Human Rights Minister Ana Pineda brushed aside the possibility of journalism-related motives in the killings, all of which had been “fully investigated.” CPJ Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría responded on the CPJ Blog: “Our concern in all of the journalist murders is that Honduran authorities have sought to minimize the climate of impunity in anti-press violence and dismiss the political motives behind such actions. By asserting in her letter to the Times that the killings were the product of ‘organized crime and common crime,’ Pineda seems to show that the government is not yet ready to confront the facts.”