Monday, June 21, 2010

Notes on murder rates in Honduras and deaths of journalists

In a recent comment attempting to downplay the clearly disproportionate level of murders of journalists in Honduras since the coup d'Etat of June 28, 2009, a hostile reader of this blog and constant critic made a number of different arguments.

One of these was the claim that journalist's murders were rising because the crime rate was going up so dramatically overall.

First, let us stop to note that this does not, in fact, as the critic wished, disprove our basic point: the coup ushered in an atmosphere of impunity (freedom from responsibility for crimes) for certain factions, and unleashed lawlessness and violence (by the armed forces and the police).

But, as I said in a comment, I know of no credible statistics that suggest the overall rise in murder rates-- which surely have gone up after the coup, and I would argue, as a direct result of the coup-- are anywhere near the increase seen in deaths of journalists: from two recorded in the two years prior to the coup; to ten recorded in the eleven months since the coup.

It took some effort, but we now have numbers for the murder rates in question. The US State Department, relying on UNDP data, reported a murder rate of 4,473 in a population of 7.3 million in 2008, the year before the coup d'etat. Standardizing, this would be 61.3 homicides per 100,000 population.

The murder rate over the past year is reportedly 66.8 homicides per 100,000. That represents a rise in the murder rate of just under 9%.

That is, indeed, a huge increase and a very troubling sign. But if the rate of increase in murders of journalists had increased proportionately, we would have expected one or at most two journalists to be killed in the past year. The actual number killed, of course, is ten.

Our constant critic made a second argument, also based on a false use of the language of rationality.

This was that it was "logical" to assume that journalists were targeted, not for the few stories they might have written critical of the coup, but for the much larger number of stories that they wrote about other topics. I have previously noted that there is nothing logical about this argument. A reporter might cover uncontroversial stories his or her entire life, then write one story that picks at a scab the powerful and lawless do not wish to have touched.

Those scabs, in some of the cases of recently murdered journalists, seem clearly to be related directly to anti-coup sentiments and reporting, based on military intimidation and death threats. But I also count as legacies of the coup deaths of journalists engaged in covering the events in the Bajo Aguan, where peasant cooperatives are under severe pressure for actions of civil disobedience through which they are demanding land rights.

One might argue that these stories have nothing to do with the coup. But they touch on the rich and powerful who initiated the coup.

Despite the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa attempting to reach a deal to clear the peasants out of the way of powerful landowners, compensating them with promises down the road, that apparently was not enough. Yesterday another armed attack on the Bajo Aguan cooperatives happened, killing one person, in one of the farms that the government authorized them to occupy. The claim made by the attacking forces-- the national military Cobras-- was that the peasants are "arming themselves".

This is the kind of claim that can never be disproved without independent media research, as the bought-and-sold newspapers of Honduras routinely print as fact stories about the Bajo Aguan that are transparently false-- in at least one case, so much so that the government had to repudiate the reports.

And here is where the coup is relevant to the deaths of journalists today. One lesson that the powerful in Honduras learned by carrying out the coup and occupying the government throughout a de facto regime rejected by the entire world is that they can get their way by force. Shutting down the media throughout the months of the de facto regime was a major initiative: by direct physical attacks, by electronic attacks, by illegal decrees, and by death threats.

So like the international human rights organizations, and organizations dedicated to the safety of a free press, we will continue to report on the unprecedented wave of violence against journalists. Because it is not just the way things are in Honduras. It is an outrage and it is motivated by impunity, a lasting legacy of the coup d'Etat.

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