The Snakes Sleep: Attacks against the Media and Impunity in Honduras *
By Sandra Cuffe
In Honduras, there is a particular quote by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano that has been adopted into the country’s rich lexicon of idioms: “Justice is like snakes. They only bite the barefoot.”
Of the thousands of human rights violations committed in Honduras since the coup in June 2009, in most cases the only serious investigations have been carried out by the grassroots organizations involved with the Human Rights Platform and the resistance movement. Very few charges have been laid against the human rights violators who ordered and carried out illegal detentions, kidnappings, beatings, torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions.
At the international level, however, there have recently been positive signals that spark the hope that justice may one day be served. Last week, the International Criminal Court announced that preliminary investigations are underway to determine whether or not the Court has jurisdiction over a case related to Honduras. Essentially, the Court is investigating whether or not war crimes and/or crimes against humanity have been committed in Honduras since the coup on June 28, 2009.
Also earlier this month, Honduras faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations, a process that each UN member State undergoes every four years. Tellingly, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia did not attend because they do not recognize the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was elected President in November 2009 in highly controversial elections that many contend were simply the prolongation of the illegitimate rule of the civic and military authorities that coordinated the overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya Rosales. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador and Ecuador explicitly clarified that they do not recognize the government of Honduras, but intervened in the Review process nonetheless in order to support the human rights of the Honduran people.
At the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, several concerns were voiced about the impunity surrounding human rights violations in general, and the murder of journalists in particular. Nine journalists have been murdered in Honduras in 2010 to date. According to the “Death Watch” compiled by the International Press Institute (IPI), Honduras is now the second most dangerous country for journalists, second only to Mexico. Prior to 2010, the countries with the most murders of journalists were mainly countries officially deemed to be in conflict, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Somalia. When the Honduran population of less than eight million is taken into account, the statistics are exponentially more serious.
International Press Institute “Death Watch”
According to the IPI’s research, from 1997 when the Institute started the “Death Watch” until the coup, only seven journalists were killed. At the Universal Periodic Review, UN member States demanded investigations and justice in the cases of the nine journalists killed in 2010 alone. While the final report will not be adopted until the Human Rights Council meets again to discuss the case in March 2011, the Honduran government stated its acceptance of the 129 recommendations during the Review process earlier this month. In the case of the journalists, however, the promise to investigate and to prosecute those responsible did not come without a rebuttal.
“In none of the cases investigated have the victims or their families alleged political motivations, nor have the investigations turned up evidence that such a pattern exists,” said Honduran Vice President Maria Antoineta Guillen de Bogran during the Review.
Earlier this year, in an interview with the Tribuna newspaper on May 3rd, Honduran Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez went even further, stating: “I guarantee that in all of the cases [of the journalists’ murders], there is no connection to indicate that it is due to their work as journalists. That is to say that there is no person or people trying to silence journalists; it is simply that, just as other people, after their work as reporters, journalists spend their time on their own personal situations.”
Of course, as murdered journalists themselves, Gabriel Fino Noriega, Joseph Hernandez Ochoa, David Meza Montesinos, Nahum Palacios, Jose Bayardo Mayrena, Manuel Juarez, Jorge Alberto Orellana, Luis Arturo Mondragon, and Israel Zelaya Diaz are not able to contest the statements by Vice President Guillen and Security Minister Alvarez. In most cases, however, journalists who have been threatened, kidnapped, beaten, and tortured have demonstrated the clear connection between their work as critical journalists supporting or reporting on the resistance movement and the human rights violations they have endured.
State of Emergency Used to Silence Protestors of the Coup
In the case of direct attacks against media outlets, the evidence is clear. Most of the violent assaults against radio stations and the confiscation of equipment took place either on June 28th, 2009, the morning of the coup, or three months later, on September 28th, 2009, after a specific executive decree including more curfews and martial law also addressed media outlets. The decree established a State of Emergency and restricted several basic rights and freedoms, including the freedom of expression, giving authorities the green light to “halt the coverage or discussion through any media, be it verbal or printed, of demonstrations that threaten peace and public order” or that compromised the “dignity” of government authorities or decisions.
“The decree [defined] the framework of a military dictatorship,” asserted well-known radio journalist Felix Molina.
“Honduras had not seen – not even during the dirty war of the 1980s, when the military governed with a civilian facade – something like what we saw the morning of June 28th 2009, which was repeated the morning of September 28th 2009, exactly three months later. The arrival in person of soldiers to a media outlet. Confiscation. Well, on June 28th, there was no confiscation of equipment, but in September, Channel 36’s equipment was destroyed and confiscated and completely confiscated from Radio Globo,” explained Molina after the military assault on Radio Globo and Cholusat Sur, the only radio and television stations, respectively, with nation-wide coverage to clearly identify with the resistance movement against the coup.
“In the 24 hours after the publication of the decree in the official newspaper, the army invoked it to take away equipment and take two media outlets off the air… And we could have expected anything to happen, but as a journalist, I would have never expected that a media outlet be physically dismantled by the army, and yet that is what we saw at dawn on September 28th,” said Molina.
On June 28th, in the hours after the Honduran army sprayed the house of elected President Zelaya with bullets and forced him onto a flight to Costa Rica, several radio stations around the country reporting the urgent news were targeted by the armed forces and forced off the air. That same morning, a nation-wide consultation was to have taken place for people to express their support or opposition for a fourth ballot box in the 2010 elections concerning a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. The initiative was supported and coordinated both by Zelaya and much of the Honduran social movement. Many of the media outlets that would later support the coup either simply did not report anything that morning, or reported the official version of events involving Zelaya’s resignation and voluntary departure. Electrical power blackouts also occurred in much of the country.
One of the radio stations attacked and forced to stop broadcasting on June 28th 2009 was Radio Juticalpa, located in the state of Olancho, home to both ousted President Zelaya and current controversial President Lobo. When station director Martha Elena Rubi arrived before dawn, she found the windows and walls of the studio shot up from outside. The shells inside the studio were all from M-16s, the assault rifles assigned to the Honduran army. Witnesses also identified the armed forces as responsible for the violent attack, but Rubi went ahead and broadcast the news of the coup.
“We thought that this time, if we informed the people of what was really going on, we would help neutralize it. So, knowing that I was going to do this work, what they did was that when I got here, at about five thirty or five o’clock in the morning, [they thought that] I would realize that they had shot up the station and that I would be afraid and not even go on air,” said Rubi.
“I knew they were going to come,” added Rubi, “so I had little time to tell people the truth, and for the town to realize the way in which they were trying to silence what we were, in an impartial way, saying: the truth. So I knew that I was racing against the clock and I committed to getting people to wake up to reality. About two or three hours later, they came with orders for me to shut down the station.”
There was a power blackout in Juticalpa, but Radio Juticalpa had a solar plant and therefore became the only radio station on the air in the entire region. When the heavily armed soldiers were approaching, Rubi stopped her news coverage and switched to music. However, the station was forced off the air for the rest of the day. Luckily, Rubi and her colleague Andres Molina were able to prevent the army from confiscating their equipment.
Likely due in large part to the persistence of Honduran human rights organizations and mounting international pressure, Colonel Rene Javier Palao Torres and sub-official Juan Alfredo Acosta Acosta were charged with Abuse of Authority for the assault on Radio Juticalpa and sentenced to prison in Juticalpa, Olancho. The military officials appealed the verdict, however, and the sentence was overturned earlier this month by the Court of Appeals.
The number of cases in which charges have not even been laid is unfortunately far greater than those that have at least made it to court. Flying in the face of the statements by Vice President Guillen and Security Minister Alvarez, one such case is the kidnapping and torture of 29-year-old Delmer Membreno on September 28th 2009, the same day as the military attacks on Radio Globo and Cholusat Sur. A former photographer for the Tribuna newspaper and the Spanish News Agency, the resistance-supporting El Libertador newspaper photographer Membreno was forced into a vehicle by armed men in Tegucigalpa.
“They put a balaclava over my head, they handcuffed me, and they burned my body. They hit me, and they uttered threats against the newspaper I work for: El Libertador,” said Membreno, with the bruises and burn marks still visible on his face and body.
“They beat me. They burned my body with cigarettes. Here [on my arm], my face, and my chest. They ripped my shirt and left me without shoes… ‘Cry, cry! Why aren’t you crying, you commie?’ That’s what they said… They said that the director better be careful, that they were following him, and that what they had done to me was nothing in comparison to what they were going to do to him,” narrated the wounded photographer.
Precautionary Measures Ignored
When the torture of Membreno took place, there had already been so many cases of human rights violations against journalists and media outlets that the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) had petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for precautionary measures specifically for a long list of journalists and media outlets that had been attacked. From July 2009 on, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to a long list of journalists and media outlets; however, during two separate IACHR hearings that took place one month ago in Washington DC, evidence began to pile up that Honduras had not been carrying out the measures.
On July 24th, 2009, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to television journalist Nahun Palacios, the news director of Aguan Television on channel 5 in Tocoa, Colon, in the Aguan Valley. Palacios had immediately and publicly voiced his opposition to the coup and reported on the mobilizations against the coup and in support of the fourth ballot box and the Constituent Assembly. Only two days after the coup, on June 30th, soldiers raided Palacios’ home, intimidated his family, held his children at gunpoint, and seized his vehicle and some work-related equipment.
Despite the IACHR precautionary measures granted the following month, Palacios never received any communication from the State, let alone any effective protection. Eight months later, on March 14th, 2010, 34-year-old Nahun Palacios was traveling home when his vehicle was intercepted and gunned down with AK47s, automatic weapons that are illegal but easily acquired in Honduras. Two unknown men fled the scene, leaving Palacios dead in the street, his body and vehicle riddled with dozens of bullets. Another passenger in the car was seriously injured and died later in the hospital.
As in many of the other murders of journalists this year, all of which remain unsolved, police did not carry out a proper investigation at the scene of Palacios’ murder. After failing to gather sufficient evidence from the body back in March, the police exhumed Palacios’ body in August, further upsetting his distraught relatives who still wait for justice eight months later, despite the State’s international assurances that they are carrying out investigations and precautionary measures.
Nahun Palacios’ murder in March 2010 was only one of five journalists killed that month. Due to the overwhelming impunity in the country, others have been forced to flee into exile. Many have also remained in Honduras, carrying out their vital work despite the ongoing threats and attacks.
“They can intimidate. You know, yes, of course there is fear, but I don’t think that it will stop us from informing the people of the truth,” said Delmer Membreno after his kidnapping and torture.
The announcement of the International Criminal Court about its preliminary investigations into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Honduras, as well as the ongoing pressure within the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, would not be possible without the work of the innumerable committed Honduran journalists, media outlets, and human rights organizations from day one.
For now, back in Honduras, however, the snakes of justice are far from trying their fangs out on the high-ranking military, police and political leaders behind both the coup and outrageous human rights violations. Justice may simply be sleeping like so many court cases in the country. Or perhaps Zelaya and democracy were not the only ones forced into exile at gunpoint on June 28th, 2009.
Sandra Cuffe is a writer and activist of no fixed address. After living and working in Honduras for four years from 2003 to 2007, she returned five days after the coup, and stayed through April 2010, collaborating with COFADEH and other local organizations.