Journalist Killings Continue in Honduras

Tim Rogers
Friday, May 28, 2010

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – For nearly three months, outspoken Honduran journalist Karol Cabrera and her two children have been living like refugees inside a cluttered military hospital room not much bigger than a jail cell.

Cabrera has already recovered from her surgeries after an assassin's bullets shattered her left forearm and lodged in her ribs, but the death threats keep coming. And she knows they're no joke.

“You saved yourself, you garbage bitch. But we will kidnap you and rape you; we know where you are and no one is going to save you or your daughter. We have you on the list and we are just waiting for the moment,” reads a message texted to Cabrera's cell phone March 17, two weeks after the attempt on her life. Her cell phone in-box is full of similar text-message threats.

Cabrera's colleague, who was riding alongside her in the vehicle during the March 1 attack, wasn't so lucky. One of the gunman's bullets ended Joseph Hernandez Ochoa's life, making him the second of seven Honduran journalists killed during the first five months of 2010.

Since the violence of last year's military coup, Honduras has arguably become the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. Not only are journalists in Honduras being killed at a rate that eclipses that of any warzone in the world right now, but their families, friends and loved ones are also being targeted.

Cabrera knows that as well as anyone. In addition to watching her colleague die in the seat next to her, Cabrera also lost her 16-year-old pregnant daughter in a similar attack on the same road Dec. 15. Cabrera believes she was the intended mark in that attack as well.

Now she's not taking any more chances. Cabrera has pulled her other two children (ages 15 and 4) out of school and forbids them to leave the tight confines of her hospital room, located on a military base outside of the capital.

The journalist says she and her family won't budge until they have guaranteed safe passage out of Honduras and refugee status in another country – something she expects will happen before the end of May.

“I refused to leave. I told the director of the hospital, ‘I am not leaving here, sorry.' The only way they will get me out of here is if they bring in all the military troops or police and drag me out,” Cabrera told The Tico Times in a recent exclusive interview.

The fact that Cabrera only feels safe under armed guard at a military barracks demonstrates the level of uncertainty facing other journalists on the outside. Many journalists complain of death threats, being followed, harassed or even attacked.

In the northern city of San Pedro Sula, several journalists have started wearing bulletproof vests to work, while in the capital, a prominent TV anchorwoman has been assigned a full-time police detail to escort her around the city.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent a top level delegation to Tegucigalpa earlier this month to demand answers about what is going on, and what the government is doing about it. President Porfirio Lobo, meanwhile, took advantage of his May 19 meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to ask the Spanish government for help investigating the journalist killings in his country.

Politically Motivated Killings?

Since the June 28 coup, which started when the military ousted former President Manuel Zelaya at bayonet point, Honduras has gone from being a country that is deeply divided to one that is dangerously so.

Journalists on the left and right of the political divide report wildly different interpretations of the news, oftentimes making it hard to believe they're reporting on the same events – or even talking about the same country. But the one thing many of them seem to agree on is that the recent wave of violence towards journalists is politically motivated (they just don't agree on who's behind it).

Luis Galdames, an outspoken radio journalist with the leftist Radio Globo, insists the violence against journalists is state-sponsored, targeting only those who “sympathize with the resistance” and oppose the Lobo government.

“This is a policy of the state to silence the independent press, to silence the voices of the people,” said Galdames, who seems to shout even in casual conversation. “This government is the succession of the coup. What this country is experiencing is a violent climate where journalists are silenced.”

Galdames, who was briefly detained during the coup and later fled to the hills where he broadcast guerrilla radio for several months, said the culture and structure of the military coup continues in the Lobo government. The killing of journalists, he asserts, is about maintaining political control.

“They have a policy of terror against the people and the independent media,” Galdames bellowed.

Journalists on the right agree the violence is political, but they claim those perpetrating it are members of the left-wing resistance movement.

“The violence (against journalists) has to do with the political situation from last year,” says Cabrera, who has received explicit text messages warning her “You are going to die like the other coup-supporting journalists.”

Rights activists also claim the violence is political in nature, but they blame it on the oligarchy.

“The motive is definitely political and economic,” said feminist activist and resistance member Gilda Velasquez, director of the human rights group Amparo Sin Limites. “The biggest newspapers, radio and TV are owned by the same people who financed the coup and who lobbied Washington. They don't want the world to know that Hondurans are still demanding a new constitution and a new social contract. ”

Velásquez insists it's not only independent journalists who are being targeted, but activists as well. She says the killings are part of the oligarchy's campaign to limit freedom of expression and silence dissident voices.

Authorities Investigate

While the source of violence remains a topic of hot debate in Honduras, both the right and left claim impunity rules as police and state prosecutors do little or nothing to investigate acts of violence or bring to justice those responsible.

The authorities, however, claim that's not the case.

Security Vice Minister Armando Calidonio said police investigations in three of the seven cases of murdered journalists are “extremely advanced,” while two of the other investigations are “advancing” and the last two are “lagging behind, but are being reinforced by more officials.”

“At this point in the investigations, there is no information to suggest that the motives were political or even related to the victims' work as journalists,” Calidonio told The Tico Times last week during an interview in his Tegucigalpa office.

“We are about to present the first case and there are going to be surprises,” he said. “There are people who want to believe that this is violence against journalists – because it would be like a badge of honor. But in the first case we are about to present, I can tell you with 95 percent certainty that there are going to be surprises that will not be pleasant for the family of the victim.”

Calidonio insisted there is no problem of impunity or freedom of expression in Honduras. He defended the police's investigations of the murders and said time will show that the law and due process work in Honduras.

Corrupt Journalists?

Several sources interviewed by The Tico Times suggested that one of the main issues behind the recent wave of journalist killings is the role reporters play in perpetuating Honduras' culture of corruption.

TV journalist Giovanny Castro said there are many cases of journalists, or people posing as such, who are contracted by third parties to launch smear campaigns against certain individuals in the name of journalism. In Honduras, he said, many “independent reporters” have to buy their own TV or radio time slots, making them the owners of their own programming and giving them full editorial control. But in a poor country, that situation opens the door to corruption, allowing people with economic means to buy journalists and airtime for the purpose of attacking or slandering their enemies.

Those who are subject to constant media attack by their enemies usually don't appreciate the bad publicity, and in some cases they quite literally decide to shoot the messenger.

“I don't think (the killing of journalists) has anything to do with the political situation from last year; I think it has to do with personal relationships and agendas,” said Castro, who covers politics and says he's never received any type of threat.

The increase in organized crime – especially drug trafficking – has made the situation even more corrupt, according to journalists. One reporter told The Tico Times that journalists have become active agents in Honduras' organized crime, to the point where it has become common for journalists to extort public figures by threatening to slander them in the media if they don't pay hush money.

A source involved in the investigations of the seven murdered journalists told The Tico Times that at least two of the slain journalists had been trying to extort money from drug traffickers.

As one journalist put it, Honduras has become “one giant snowball of corruption.”

Meanwhile, back in the crowded military hospital room, Cabrera insists she will continue to try to expose such corruption as long as she has a voice to do so. Though the political left says she is hysterically right-wing and siding with the oligarchy, Cabrera, who comes from an impoverished upbringing, insists she's always been equally critical of power, regardless of who the president is.

She says her friends are urging her to cool it after the attempt on her life, but she insists she's in too deep to back out now.

“How am I going to leave it alone if it has already taken the lives of my daughter and my granddaughter?” Cabrera demanded. “God wanted me to stay alive so that I keep insisting and pushing to find out what the f*ck is going on in this country.”

Only from now on, Cabrera's reports will most likely be filed from the United States or Canada, depending on which country is the first to grant her refugee status.