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Press Freedom

Murder of Prominent Honduran Journalist “Sends a Terrible Message”

TEGUCIGALPA, May 16 2012 (IPS) - A few short hours after Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said he had seen evidence that Alfredo Villatoro, a radio reporter kidnapped May 9, was alive, the journalist’s body was found in a residential neighbourhood on the south side of the capital.

The prominent reporter’s kidnapping and death have shocked Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world, where journalists are frequently among the victims of attacks.

The body of Villatoro, who was news manager at HRN, the country’s most influential radio station, was found by the roadside with two gunshot wounds to the head.

He was dressed in the uniform of the Cobras, an elite police force, and was blindfolded with a red scarf. The initial forensic reports indicate that he was killed shortly before the president announced at noon on Tuesday that Villatoro “is alive; we have seen videos that the kidnappers sent the family.”

“We hope they will release him soon,” the president added. A few hours later, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla confirmed to the TN5 television news programme that Villatoro was dead.

Speaking with TN5 by telephone, the president lamented the reporter’s death and said he had announced the news that he was alive “to give hope. We had that information (the videos) since Saturday, but sadly the outcome was fatal. My condolences for the family and for all journalists.

“I cannot say whether this is a message for my government or for the press; I would never reveal anything that could hurt someone. I don’t think that what I said had anything to do with how this ended. I can only tell you that we must not allow ourselves to be intimidated. I hope the investigation will come up with answers very soon,” he added.

In a brief message on Wednesday, the president offered a 150,000 dollar reward for information that leads to Villatoro’s killers, and once again repeated his promise that he would make Honduras a safe country.

Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world: 82 per 100,000 population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to a global average of 6.9 per 100,000.

Villatoro’s death brings to 20 the number of journalists killed in the last two years, and to 27 those murdered in the last decade, according to figures from the National Human Rights Commission.

On Tuesday night, shocked reporters, civil society and political leaders, and human rights activists crowded the city morgue, in a vigil that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

HRN reporter Lucía Alvarado said that “we have been living in anguish for the past week; we thought he would come back. He was my boss for 20 years, and every day, when I passed his chair in the sound booth, I imagined myself saying to him ‘how’s it going boss!’…but they killed him,” she added between sobs.

Police spokesman Héctor Iván Mejía said “everything humanly possible was done to rescue him safe and sound, but we couldn’t find them (the kidnappers).”

It was reported that elite police commando units were put on the case, and that experts from Colombia provided assistance.

Mirna Flores, an analyst of security issues, told IPS that Honduras was facing “unstoppable violence. This death was a bad message, but above all it dealt a blow to the country’s institutions, because it highlighted their incapacity to resolve things.

“The way the murder was carried out indicates that this is a message – a terrible message – from organised crime.”

Minister Bonilla said “the mafias may have” carried out the kidnapping and murder, in response to the crackdown on organised crime and to the passage of a law allowing the extradition of Honduran citizens wanted abroad for involvement in drug-related crimes, terrorism or organised crime.

The government held an emergency meeting of the National Security Council Wednesday.

The president of the Honduran journalists union, Juan Ramón Mairena, said “they want to silence us. They went after an influential journalist from a major media outlet, but we must not be intimidated.

“We hope impunity will not prevail in this case, as it has in others,” he added. “We urge President Lobo not to allow this murder to merely swell the statistics of the many other crimes that adorn this government,” Mairena told IPS.

Over the last seven years, this impoverished Central American country of eight million people has suffered an average of 18 murders a day, according to official figures.

Corruption and the penetration of organised crime in the police force led to a purge of nearly 200 officers, including police chiefs, in late 2011. The public image of the police force has hit a new low.

The police, implicated in murders, kidnapping, theft, extortion, arms trafficking and other crimes, will be the focus of a broad reform process, for which assistance has been requested from Chile and Canada.

Governmental and non-governmental human rights institutions say the government must purge the top brass in the police, widely considered promoters of organised crime cartels that operate from within the structure of the police itself.

But the authorities have not taken the necessary decisions, despite the abundant evidence available, sources from human rights groups told IPS.

With respect to journalists, the vulnerability and limitations of freedom of expression that they face have been widely denounced by international organisations that defend and promote freedom of the press.

A press release issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in response to Villatoro’s death says “The government’s stance on media killings has worsened the situation. Authorities have minimised crimes against journalists and been slow and negligent in pursuing the culprits.”

On Tuesday, European Union representatives in Honduras expressed concern over the situation of human rights in this country and the threats and intimidation against human rights defenders, reporters and the gay and lesbian community.

Villatoro’s body was found just nine days after the murder of another journalist, Erick Martínez Ávila, spokesman for Kukulcán, an organisation that defends the rights of sexual minorities.

The activist, who was strangled, was also an outspoken opponent of the June 2009 coup and a member of the recently created Libertad y Refundación party, which is led by ousted President Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009).

The authorities report that they have no leads in the case.

Murders of journalists in this country tend to go unsolved and unpunished. (END)

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