Working as an investigative journalist poses a daily risk in a nation living in a post-coup d’état period and in the aftermath of an election branded as electoral fraud by the opposition of incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernández.
The risk for the press stems not only from a disregard for the law and mounting corruption, underlined by the launch of a Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), backed by the Organisation of American States (OAS)1, but also from narco-politics.
This is also obvious from the extradition of congressmen and mayors and the indictment of army and police officers.
To date, the highest-level extraditions for drug trafficking involve the young Fabio Lobo, the son of former president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and ex-congressman Antonio Hernández, alias Tony Hernández, the current president’s brother.
Both are on trial in New York for drug trafficking. Witnesses who trafficked with these politicians, the drug cartel Los Cachiros, told a US court that they gave an alleged bribe to president Lobo Sosa.
In the New York courts, Los Cachiros admitted to their participation in a crime against journalist Aníbal Barrow, who was kidnapped, dismembered and later thrown into an alligator-infested lake. His body was found by the authorities after days of searching.2
In December 2018, the former chief of police, Ricardo Ramírez Del Cid, declared that in the case of the journalist Alfredo Villatoro, murdered under the Lobo Sosa Government, there was high-level involvement. He was subsequently dismissed for investigating the crime.
Villatoro, a radio broadcaster in Honduras, was kidnapped, tortured and executed, according to the forensic report read out during an oral hearing. His body appeared in police clothing with a red neck scarf and one hand deliberately placed in his mouth as a symbol of silence.
These two crimes happened during Lobo Sosa’s four-year term.
“Journalism has become a high-risk profession for those working in it because it puts the lives of journalists and their families at risk, particularly when there is coverage at social protest marches condemning problems such as organised crime, drug trafficking and gangs,” states the National State Commissioner for Human Rights in its 2017 Annual Report.
The widespread assault on women
For female journalists there is a barely visible, unequal drama, in which they are generally victims of forced displacement, sexual harassment, and smear campaigns on the basis of their appearance, age, and sexuality, not to mention murders, attempted murders and the murder of their children.
The life of journalist Karol Cabrera took a ‘3,000-degree turn’, as she puts it. In 2009, she lost her daughter and grandson in a criminal attack. Her mother died by suicide in 2016, just a few years after Cabrera had been forced to leave the country after surviving a shooting in 2010.
When her mother died, Cabrera wrote a message on her Facebook page, which included the words: “Mother it pains me, down to my soul, because I can’t set foot in my own country. I can’t say a final goodbye”.
“After having the basics I had to start from scratch. It’s hard in a country that isn’t yours. You don’t feel as though it’s your country anywhere and are always reminded of that,” Cabrera now says. She has been living in asylum in Canada for the past nine years.
Cabrera has not had the right to the truth and does not know how the crime was ordered that killed her daughter, nor the subsequent attempt on her life, in which journalist Joseph Ochoa, who was with her in the car, was also killed.
“We know there were two attacks, one on my daughter and my grandson,” she says. She believes these attacks are linked to a congressman very close to a former president of Honduras. And she says officials closed down the investigation into the attempt on her life.
“The people who shot at me were national police officers under orders from that congressman,” she alleges.
“When they were investigating that issue, the congressman was removed and my case was made confidential,” she says. The only arrest in relation with the attacks so far has been one in connection with Cabrera’s daughter.
Cabrera said she was told “we’re going to cut off your tongue”, with the persecution starting when she began to investigate and divulge alleged cases of corruption in the Honduras State telecommunications company under Zelaya’s government and the gifts of cars, jewellery, trips, and travel expenses from the Presidential Palace.
“I thought I was reporting normal corrupt politicians, and today we know the press are denouncing corrupt politicians who are also drug traffickers”, she said. Cabrera filed this report in the midst of a full-blown political crisis during the coup d’état of 28 June 2009 perpetrated against Zelaya Rosales.
Another female journalist uprooted from her country: Leysi Flores
“I honestly try to pretend I’m okay and act as though nothing has happened, but behind this grinning mask hides a woman whose hopes have been destroyed; I had to leave my father, because my mother had died, and my two brothers, the only thing I have left in my country. Believe me, I suffer when I see everything I’d built with so much dedication and effort destroyed. I feel my life will never be the same, and that’s hard; I cry every day over the excruciating situation I’ve lived through,” Leysi Flores explains.
Flores had been a reporter for UNETV since 2015, a channel which is critical of the current government, supporting the opposition led by Manuel Zelaya Rosales, and whose broadcasts reveal and address issues that are censored in other media outlets.
The journalist fled by taking the migrant route after the 2018 elections and is without work and seeking asylum in the USA.
The journalist’s father was beaten and told “if she doesn’t leave that fucking channel we’ll kill her”. They turned up at her house, attacked her with tear gas, with her children also suffering the effects of the gas. “Everything points to it happening because of journalism,” Flores said.
“For women working in a country like Honduras, any profession is difficult for different reasons; it is, I should say, a huge challenge, but when a woman decides to become a journalist, to become a correspondent and stay true to her convictions and ideals, it’s an achievement. Having children makes us ‘less competent’; in short, women have to overcome so many things when they decide to work in journalism and that’s a reality I’ve experienced as a result of the violence and the criminality of a regime that kills, day after day”.
Since March of 2017, explains Flores, assaults began to escalate: first an assault on the whole UNETV team, and then phone calls saying they were being watched, car attacks… Basically, different types of threats.
The defence of female journalists
Journalist Miriam Elvir was attacked on 13 December, 2011 by the Honduras Presidential Honour Guard, together with 12 other women journalists. Tear gas was thrown at them as they protested, calling for justice for the crime against the first female journalist murdered in Honduras. Elvir was at the march to defend the freedom of the press.
Since 2011 she has organised different trade union initiatives to bring together the press around their self-protection, for instance the Association of Environmental and Agroforestry Journalists of Honduras (APAAH) and the Newscasters Network of Drinking Water and Sanitation of Honduras (REDCOAGUASH). From 2011 to 2018, they have been in charge of registering warnings in relation to freedom of expression in Honduras. This work has left emotional and psychological scars, yet the clearest is the perpetual feeling of impotence.
Based on her experience, Elvir believes that investigative journalism in Honduras is “really complicated because there is an ailing ecosystem that endeavours to ensure there are no investigations. This occurs from a logic of the interests of leaders concerned with keeping us in permanent crisis to avoid investigative journalism. Additionally, this ecosystem has conditioned the consumer to call investigative journalism any notation or even comment”.
“The most positive thing in this setting is that it has awakened a generation of media professionals who see journalism through a more committed lens”.
With regard to women, Elvir says, the media requirements are for women to be a journalist before they are a mother, daughter, wife, girlfriend; even before they are a woman.
This disloyal competition means that in most cases female journalists give up their professional growth to leave the space open for men. “Ironically, behind a good journalistic investigation there is always a woman, even when male journalists take all the plaudits, and here I go back to what I mentioned a few moments ago, because as women we give way, which means we also give up on the spotlight,” she explained.
Over the course of this period, Elvir documented the reality condensed in official reports. According to the National Human Rights Commissioner (CONADEH), between 2001 and 2017 75 journalists were murdered. The figures of murders against media workers began to grow between 2009 and 2017, according to Conadeh. Only five deaths were recorded before 2009 when there was a US-backed military coup; all others have died since. Of the total number of crimes, three were against women.
In 2015, a ‘Protection Mechanism’ was created in Honduras, as part of the mechanism of the political body, the National Council for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Justice Workers, Journalists and Communications Professionals.
In May 2018, the Mechanism reported that 37 journalists were being protected under the National Protection System.
State attacks with regulations
Since 2018, in the Public Prosecutor’s Office the Special Prosecution Office for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Communications Professionals and Justice Workers has been established: yet risk and impunity persist.
Through Resolution DGF-339-2018 of 8 November 2018, the Prosecution Office responded to a request for public information about case statistics, by stating that it did not have the requested information. The information requested was a list of case statistics referred by the Protection Mechanism, the date of reception, beneficiary types, cases with sentences and litigated cases.
The Prosecutor for Crimes Against Life was asked for an interview to gain an idea of how the investigations into the deaths of journalists were progressing, but to no avail.
CONADEH revealed that only 8 percent of cases have ended in a sentence.
Through the request to the Right to the Access of Public Information made to the Public Prosecution Office, in 2015 it was revealed that no perpetrator had been tried for these crimes.
Main photo: 2011 Media Tour to Honduras – US Mission to the United Nations Agencies in Rome (Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)