08/05/2012 18:50 BST | Updated 08/07/2012 06:12 BST

Honduras: Killing Free Expression

Erick Martínez Ávila, a 32-year old Honduran journalist and gay rights activist, was found dead and dumped in a ditch in Guasculile on 7 May 2012. His killers strangled him, and in doing so, brought the total number of journalists murdered in Honduras since 2007 to twenty-seven.

Martínez was a well-known spokesman for the lesbian and gay rights group Kuculnan and was politically active in Libertad y Refundación, the party of Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran president who was deposed by a military coup in 2009.

The motive for Martínez' killing is unknown. But as a journalist critical of the current Honduran government, and as a Zelaya-supporter, Martínez was doubly vulnerable in a country where the rate of attacks on members of the press and the political opposition is accelerating. He is the seventeenth journalist to be murdered in Honduras in the last two years. Many more have suffered beatings and death threats, with government officials - including the army and the police - regularly implicated in these attacks.

As recently as 25 April 2012, unidentified gunmen shot and killed another journalist, Noel Alexander Valladares, as he drove away from the studios of Maya TV in the capital, Tegucigalpa. On 8 September 2011, in a similar attack, gunmen killed 62-year old, pro-Zelaya radio journalist Menardo Flores.

The coup of 2009 produced an illegal regime that ruled by force, suppressed opposition and censored the press. It was eventually succeeded in 2010 by President Porfirio Lobo Sosa's government - still unrecognized by some countries - which immediately offered an amnesty to all those involved in the coup.

But little has changed on the ground, at least in terms of the violence. Journalists such as Flores and Martínez, who still seek to expose those implicated in the coup or who merely have ties to Zelaya, can at the very least expect a death threat.

So too can the newspapers and broadcasters that focus on police corruption, secrecy in the public administration, or criticism of current large-scale privatization projects.

On 6 December 2011, Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, a reporter for the radio news station Cadena Hondureña de Noticias, was shot to death while travelling in a car belonging to a member of the armed forces. The previous day, in an unrelated incident, armed men fired shots at the offices of the daily newspaper La Tribuna, seriously wounding a security guard. According to the newspaper's editor, attacks on La Tribuna staff are a regular occurrence.

Unsurprisingly, self-censorship in the press is a growing trend.

As a signatory to the American Convention of Human Rights, Honduras is obliged to protect its citizens' right to free expression. At its most recent Universal Periodic Review (November 2010), Honduras committed itself to defending this right and pledged to investigate attacks on journalists and other media workers.

However, 18 months later, even President Lobo recognizes that Honduras is failing in this regard, with very few assaults or murders investigated properly.

Lobo publicly acknowledged this in November 2011. He also called for a 'review' of free expression and, tellingly, made a distinction between 'libertad de expresión [y la] defensa de los intereses particulares' (freedom of expression and the defence of special interests).

Exactly what he meant by this isn't clear, but it gives little reason for hope: leaders who make this kind of distinction too often end up trying to deny opposition opinion its voice, as if citing the 'special interests' of an opponent were justification enough for exempting them from the protection guaranteed by a state's legal commitment to free expression.