Eight months after the fatal shooting of TV journalist Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, the murder remains unsolved with little progress in the official investigation. PEN International calls on the Honduran authorities to expedite the investigation and to bring Argeñal’s killers to justice as matter of urgency, in line with a promise the Security Minister made in April 2014 as well as with the Honduran authorities’ responsibilities under domestic and international law. PEN urges the authorities to fully investigate the apparent link between Argeñal’s reporting on corruption and his murder, as well as any links between the killings of journalists in Honduras and their political views. The organization also calls on the authorities to ensure the safety of his brother Mario Argeñal, who has been subjected to intimidation and other harassment.
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Owner of Christian station Vida Televisión and correspondent in Danlí for opposition station Globo TV, Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in his home in Danlí, Paraíso Department, on Dec. 7 2013. In the months before his murder, he had received threats, including death threats, in connection with his reporting on corruption in a local hospital and in local government.
More than eight months on, Argeñal’s murder remains unsolved. The journalist’s brother, Mario Argeñal, who has been active in demanding justice for the killing, has told PEN International that there has been almost no progress in the investigation – despite the fact that his family has given the police and Public Prosecutor information about the alleged killers and those who ordered the murder.
According to PEN International’s records, at least 42 journalists have been murdered in Honduras since 2003, 36 of them since the coup d’état in June 2009. Over 90 per cent of these murders remain entirely unsolved. Although a few convictions have been obtained in a few – mainly high-profile – cases, most may be considered only partially solved due to the authorities’ failure to prosecute those responsible for ordering the crime.
According to his brother, Juan Carlos Argeñal was killed for exposing corruption in Gabriela Alvarado regional hospital in Danlí, including large-scale embezzlement of funds and theft of supplies by a hospital administrator and local political leader. The journalist broke the story on both his local TV station Vida TV and the national station Globo TV in June-July 2013, and gave numerous media interviews as a result. A few months later, an oversight commission was set up to investigate the alleged corruption and the hospital administrator was reportedly dismissed.
One week before his death in December 2013, Juan Carlos Argeñal told his family he was receiving death threats from people linked to the hospital’s administration. He called the general coordinator of local rights group Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras – COFADEH) to inform her about the threats on Nov. 14, 2013. The journalist had previously received threats, including from local officials for exposing corruption in the mayor’s office, at the beginning of March 2013, which he had formally reported to COFADEH.
Information about these threats was passed on to the police by Juan Carlos Argeñal’s family at the time of his death. However, according to his brother, eight months later the authorities have still not made a request to check the journalist’s phone records – despite the fact that witnesses have testified that on the day he was killed someone called him to sign an advertising contract at his home, where he was murdered. Police have also failed to act on a witness statement from an individual who overheard a known sicario (hit man) saying that he had been asked to kill the journalist, about a week before his death, according to his brother.
Official pledges to investigate and prosecute
On April 1, 2014, Mario Argeñal met Security Minister Arturo Corrales and presented him with a written request to send a specialist team from the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa to investigate his brother’s murder, to be based in Danlí. He says that the regional prosecutor and the investigator suggested that the family ask for outside help because they are too scared to investigate, as the case implicates people with significant political and economic power who are blocking the investigation.
According to Mario Argeñal, Minister Corrales said in the meeting that he believed the case could be easily solved since the crime was clearly committed by hit men and that he would send a team of investigators to the region which would solve the case within 30 days. The name of the team assigned was the Strategic System for the Collection, Collation, Analysis and Storing of Information (Sistema Estratégico de Recolección, Cotejamiento, Análisis y Archivo de Información– SERCAA). According to press reports, this is a newly created undercover police intelligence unit created in March 2014.
SERCAA has visited the region three times, says Mario Argeñal, but there is no team based there as requested. He says he has given them the name and a photo of the alleged hit man and witness statements, as well as a photo of the person he believes ordered the killing. When SERCAA last visited in mid-July 2014, officers reportedly told him that the crime was “90 per cent solved.” However, in order to arrest the suspected hit man they say they need a statement by an eyewitness witness to the murder. Mario Argeñal suspects that, like the local investigators, they are afraid.
Mario Argeñal was himself subjected to intimidation and surveillance by vehicles circling and keeping watch on his house, in December and February 2014. He had given several interviews to national media on his brother’s murder, linking it to his reporting on corruption in local government and had also been liaising with the authorities to seek justice. He has found that each time he appears in the media his security is affected via threatening phone calls and people following him in cars with no licence plates.
“An apparent pattern of killings”
Although Mario Argeñal does not believe that there was a political motive behind his brother’s death, there is an apparent pattern of killings of Honduran journalists who are members of opposition parties or who have voiced political criticism of the government.
Mario Argeñal is the coordinator in Danlí of the National Front of Popular Resistance Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular – FNRP), a coalition of politicians, unions and indigenous groups that supports the Liberty and Refoundation (Libertad y Refundación – LIBRE) political party. LIBRE, which is led by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former President Zelaya, contested the November 2013 presidential elections, which brought Juan Orlando Hernández into power in January 2014.
At the time of Juan Carlos Argeñal’s death, Mario Argeñal was also Secretary General of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras – COPINH) and a member of the FNRP’s national coordinating body, and well known at national level. It has been suggested that the journalist’s murder was intended to silence Mario.
Juan Carlos Argeñal was himself a member of LIBRE and Vida Televisión had voiced support for the party.
A number of other journalists murdered since the June 2009 coup have also had connections with LIBRE. For example, Hernán Cruz Barnica (killed May 28, 2014) of community radio station Radio Opoa, La Voz de la Esperanza, Copán department, was a member of both LIBRE and the FNRP.Manuel Murillo Varela (killed Oct. 23, 2013), was a LIBRE member as well as working as official cameraman for several public figures, including former President Zelaya and, more recently, for Globo TV. Erick Alexander Martínez Ávila (killed May 7, 2012), spokesperson for the Asociación Kukulcan which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (LBGT) and human rights defender, had recently been designated a pre-candidate for a deputy position by the FNRP’s Sexual Diversity Board for LIBRE’s internal elections
Several other journalists working for Globo TV and Radio Globo – outlets known for their criticism of the coup and government – have also been targeted. In addition to Juan Carlos Argeñal and Manuel Murillo Varela, Globo TV presenter Aníbal Barrow was kidnapped and murdered in June/ July 2013. Another journalist killed in December 2011, Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, had also previously worked for Radio Globo.
Julio Ernesto Alvarado, director and presenter of the news programme Mi Nación on Globo TV, has been subjected to threats and judicial harassment. In December 2013, Alvarado, was sentenced on appeal to a 16-month prison sentence and ban on practising journalism for covering allegations of corruption by a local university dean in 2006 and subsequently received threats. Despite the prison term being lifted on payment of a fine by Alvarado in April 2014, the dean is reportedly seeking to re-instate the work ban and launch a civil defamation suit for damages. In May, representatives from PEN International, PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect Alvarado’s right to freedom of expression.
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Photo credit: Featured image from the cover of PEN Canada’s report Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity. Headshot of Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina provided by his family.