Nine months after a military-led coup plunged Honduras into political turmoil, human rights groups are denouncing what they see as an alarming spate of attacks on journalists, including the killings of five in March alone.
No one has been arrested in the slayings, and speculation on motives has run the gamut. The violence illustrates the depth to which Honduras remains unsettled and on edge, even after a new president was elected in November and installed in January amid promises to heal national divisions.
International free-press organizations called on President Porfirio Lobo to fully investigate the killings and put an end to them.
"These attacks are seriously restricting freedom of expression and undermine citizens' right to be informed on issues of public interest," Carlos Lauria of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. He called the violence "unprecedented."
The five journalists killed this month were victims of drive-by shootings in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, and other cities. Some were known to be sympathetic to ousted President Manuel Zelaya; others had no public political leanings.
Independent of politics, Honduras has a high homicide rate, and several of the journalists worked in parts of Honduras rife with drug-trafficking and smuggling rings.
Jose Bayardo Mairena, a reporter for the Excelsior radio station, and Manuel Juarez, who worked for Super 10 radio, were traveling Friday in Olancho province, about 75 miles north of Tegucigalpa, when gunmen pulled up alongside their car and shot them, their colleagues said.
Other journalists were killed in similar shootings on March 1, 11 and 14. One of the victims, Joseph Hernandez Ochoa, was killed as he drove with colleague Karol Cabrera, a TV news host known for her support of the coup. She was injured. Three months earlier, attackers shot at Cabrera's car, killing her pregnant 16-year-old daughter. Cabrera says she has received numerous death threats.
"I think what we are seeing with these murders is that there are still dark forces at work," Leo Valladares, a law professor who served as Honduras' human rights ombudsman for a decade, said in a telephone interview from Tegucigalpa.
He noted that both the extreme right, long the dominant power in Honduras, and the extreme left would have reasons for sowing fear. Many on the right oppose any effort by the Lobo government to sustain dialogue with Zelaya supporters and other dissidents. Many on the left refuse to recognize Lobo because he was elected while a repressive de facto government was in charge and, they maintain, whitewashed the coup.
Jose Osman Lopez, president of the Committee for Free Expression in Honduras, said the killings of the journalists are part of a wider deterioration in human rights that has especially hurt opponents of the coup and belied talk of reconciliation.
Renderos is a special correspondent.