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Honduras’ undue restrictions on expression and police abuse of emergency powers during COVID-19

On 10th March 2020, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández declared a state of sanitary emergency due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On 16th March 2020, another decree (PCM-021-2020) restricted several constitutional guarantees, including freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and movement. Measures adopted in the country include a prohibition on public or private gatherings of any size and a curfew. Following national and international pressure, the government reformed (PCM 022-2020) this legislation on 21st March 2020, re-establishing the constitutional guarantees related to freedom of expression.

Human rights organisations have expressed concern that “the health emergency, coupled with a precarious health system, weak institutions, the shortage and privatisation of water resources and serious problems of corruption, militarisation and exploitation of natural resources will deepen the risks faced by the Honduran people.” Since the implementation of COVID-19-related measures, there have been several reports of arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders in the country, as detailed in the following section of this update.

Association

Defender killed in violent eviction

On 2nd April 2020, human rights defender Iris Argentina Álvarez was killed during a violent and allegedly illegal eviction in Marcovia, Choluteca. Three people were also injured during the attack. Iris Álvarez and the evicted families belong to the Cerro Escondido campesino cooperative, which has been conducting a process of land recovery in the area. The perpetrators were identified by community members as private security officers employed by the La Grecia Sugar Mill, which is reportedly involved in a legal dispute with the cooperative for the land.

According to information from IM-Defensoras, Cerro Escondido members say the attack began overnight, when individuals identified as security personnel arrived with machetes in hand, threatened people and set fire to several houses. The assailants allegedly fired indiscriminately against people who were defending themselves with sticks and stones. Two men have been formally accused and will be tried for this crime.

HRDs and journalists subjected to harassment and attacks during pandemic

Human rights organisation Comité de Familiares Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras - COFADEH) documented that 45 human rights defenders have been subjected to attacks, harassment or reprisals for their work since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and that seven journalists were assaulted, detained, and/or had their equipment taken and camera footage deleted.

In the face of reported abuses and rights violations, the International Forum for Human Rights in Honduras, composed of 35 international and national human rights organisations, have said they will monitor the measures implemented by the Honduran State in response to the public health emergency and their impact on more vulnerable sections of the population.

Two women HRDs detained

On 17th March 2020, police agents detained human rights defender Aleyda Huete at home and took her to the offices of the Choluteca Police Bureau of Investigations. She was later released on bail to respond to charges of alleged “illegal possession of a homemade weapon” and “storage of explosives detrimental to the internal security of the Honduran State”. Huete is one of the leaders of Bastión del Sur, a collective known for innovative street protests. According to IM-Defensoras, this was an arbitrary arrest which took place in a context of suspended constitutional guarantees under the pretext of COVID-19. On 31st March 2020, a local court cleared the defender of all charges.

On 24th March 2020, the police searched and detained human rights defender Evelyn Johana Castillo, a coordinator of the Red de Mujeres de Ojojona (Ojojona Women’s Network) and member of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras. Castillo was returning home from buying food with her husband and daughter when a police officer intercepted her, searched her bag and reproached her for being on the street. According to the defender, the officers detained her for not complying with a mandatory curfew despite the fact that they were outside curfew hours. A video of the incident shows two officers detaining Castillo while pushing, pulling and shoving her.

Assembly

On 17th April 2020, the Comité por la Libre Expresión (Committee for Free Expression - C-Libre) published a brief on protests against hunger in the context of COVID-19. According to the brief, at least 85 protests were registered across Honduras between 23rd March and 2nd April 2020. Many of these demonstrations were dispersed by state security forces using tear gas and, in some instances, firearms.

Expression

COVID-19 legislation suspends freedom of expression

On 16th March 2020, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández published a decree (PCM-005-2020) instituting a state of emergency for seven days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation restricted several guarantees provided by the Honduran constitution, including Article 72 which protects the right to free expression without censorship. The country’s media and press associations Asociación de Medios de Comunicación and Colegio de Periodistas de Honduras (CPH) stated that journalistic work is fundamental in such a time of crisis and urged the government to revoke this restriction. Twenty one civil society organisations also condemned the decree and considered this measure disproportionate.

Following national and international pressure, the government reformed (PCM 022-2020) the legislation on 21st March 2020, re-establishing the constitutional guarantees related to freedom of expression. On 5th April 2020 the government announced that journalists with press credentials would be able to circulate during curfew hours.

On 17th April 2020, C-Libre said they had registered at least 11 violations against journalists who were covering information on COVID-19. In all these cases, C-Libre said, public officials were responsible for the restrictions on journalists’ work.

On 3rd May 2020, World Press Freedom Day, journalists’ association CPH president Dagoberto Rodríguez said in an interview that Honduras’ government has sought to control information on the pandemic via national television and radio, restricting journalists from investigating or criticising emergency measures. Rodríguez also said that around five Honduran communicators had been infected by COVID-19 and that the pandemic deepened the country’s media crisis, with journalists fired and outlets forced to close.

Review of new Criminal Code extended

In early May 2020, press freedom organisations including Asociación por la Democracia y los Derechos Humanos (ASOPODEHU), Article 19, Reporters Without Borders, and PEN International published a statement calling on Honduras to delay the implementation of the new Criminal Code, which was set to enter into force on 10th May 2020. As previously reported on the Monitor, Honduras’ civil society organisations have repeatedly warned that some aspects of the legislation threaten civic space. On 9th May 2020, Honduras’ National Congress extended the Criminal Code’s review period by another 45 days. ASJ, the Honduras chapter of Transparency International, said this is a positive decision if it gives lawmakers the opportunity to listen to civil society and urged the State to organise an online public consultation with interested organisations.

IACHR report

On 24th February 2020 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression published their annual report on the situation of freedom of expression in the region. The report highlighted the persistence of high levels of violence against journalists in Honduras and the impunity for these crimes. In 2019, IACHR received reports of at least six killings of communicators which could be linked to their journalistic work. The report also underscores the continued use of criminal law to punish communicators, noting the particularly significant case of David Romero, a journalist who received a ten-year sentence for defamation and slander after denouncing alleged acts of corruption. In addition, as reported by the IACHR, Honduran security forces used excessive force against protesters in 2019, in particular to repress widespread demonstrations organised by the education and health sectors. This led to deaths, detentions and injuries.