The attempt on the life of journalist Fidelina Sandoval: a new attack on freedom of expression in Honduras

On 8 April 2013, it was Fidelina Sandoval’s 24th birthday. She had worked for two years at Radio Globo, one of the few stations broadcasting information on the social protests in Honduras since the coup which overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

At 8.25 in the morning, Fidelina was just about to cross the Bulevar Morazán, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, when she noticed a grey pickup truck, with no licence plates, with two men in the front, one of whom was trying to hide. She stated a few hours later, at the press conference organized at the headquarters of COFADEH (Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras) that her first instinct was to look away and to escape by crossing the road. Seconds later she heard a deafening noise, probably from a gunshot. She thinks that the bullet grazed her left cheek. “I realized that I was unhurt” the journalist told her colleagues. “I looked around and I couldn’t see anyone. I didn’t think I was the intended target until a man came up to me and asked me if I had any enemies because the bullet was for me.”

Fidelina stated that the week before she had received phone calls from strangers who asked her for information under various pretexts. She received these calls after reporting on the clean-up of the police force and the land conflict in the Bajo Aguán. For example, on 4 April, Radio Globo broadcast her interview with Aldo Oliva, the Police Commissioner, on the purge of the organization’s senior ranks. On the Bajo Aguán, she reported on the discovery of a clandestine grave, believed to contain the body of at least one disappeared person (possibly more) who had been involved in the struggle to defend their land. Her report stressed that some people from the armed forces were impeding the investigations.

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Press conference in COFADEH on 8 April 2013 

(http://www.cofadeh.hn/node/172)

“It’s a means of sowing terror so that nobody says anything any more and to give the impression that everything’s OK here”, Bertha Oliva, COFADEH’s coordinator, said at the press conference. On her work as a journalist, Fidelina Sandoval stated, “I’m not afraid – I’m committed to it and I want to carry on working with integrity and dedication.”

As well as the support provided by COFADEH, Fidelina received international accompaniment from PROAH.

Fidelina Sandoval is the latest victim in an endless succession of threats, harassment, attacks, kidnappings and murders suffered by journalists, a level of persecution which, according to UNESCO, has turned Honduras into the country with the highest murder rate for journalists in the world.1 CONADEH (the Honduran National Commissioner for Human Rights) has reported that of all the journalists killed in the country in the past decade, 80% – a total of 28 – have been murdered since Porfirio Lobo took office in January 2010.2 As a result, many journalists have chosen to go into exile in search of safety for themselves and their families.

Honduras is now one of only four countries in the Americas where the press is classified as “not free” by the US-based organization Freedom House, and of the 197 countries worldwide that it assessed for freedom of the press, it ranked Honduras 142nd,3 primarily because of the killing and intimidation of journalists, combined with the impunity which has reined in the country since the coup.4 Similarly, in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index for 2013, Honduras comes 127th out of the 179 countries studied. The report expresses concern that “There has been no let-up in the persecution of opposition media and community radio stations, or in the criminalization of human rights activists and grass-roots movements that provide information about such sensitive issues as land disputes, police abuses and minority rights.”5

Frank de la Rue, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, focussed on the issue of the persecution of members of the press when presenting his preliminary observations and recommendations at the end of his official visit to Honduras in August 2012. He stressed its negative implications for democracy and thus the importance of adequate protection for journalists: “Limitations on the press are limitations on citizen participation and an attack on democracy. I therefore believe that violence against journalists should be seen not only as an attack on the rights of an individual but as an attack on the rights of society as a whole to be informed and to seek access to information. That is why I repeat that the State has an obligation to provide special protection for those who work to defend and promote the rights of others, such as human rights defenders and journalists, as this role puts them at risk…”6

This call for greater protection of journalists and human rights defenders by the state echoes that made by Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders on her visit to Honduras in 2011  (see blog article) but it is one that still remains to be answered.

http://www.elheraldo.hn/Secciones-Principales/Pais/Honduras-encabeza-asesinatos-de-periodistas (in Spanish)

http://www.conadeh.hn/index.php/7-conadeh/215-al-cumplirse-un-ano-del-asesinato-del-periodista-alfredo-villatoro (in Spanish)

3 Freedom House: Global Press Freedom Rankings http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Global%20and%20Regional%20Press%20Freedom%20Rankings.pdf

Freedom House: Freedom of the Press 2012 http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2012/honduras

Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2013 http://fr.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/classement_2013_gb-bd.pdf

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12433&LangID=E (in Spanish only)

For more information on the case of Fidelina Sandoval and journalists in Honduras:

defensoresenlinea.com (in Spanish): Los temas cruciales del acontecer nacional exponen a los periodistas a un peligro creciente

Conexihon (in Spanish): Honduras: Agresiones a periodistas se disparan en marzo, abril, mayo y agosto

IFEX (Latin America and Caribbean) Annual Report on Impunity 2012:

http://ifex.org/americas/2013/03/04/executive%20summary%20-%20march%202013%20-%20english%20.pdf

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