Freedom of Expression

Press Release R171/16

Office of the Special Rapporteur Expresses Concern over Murder of Journalist in Guatemala

November 21, 2016

Washington, D.C. – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the murder of journalist Hamilton Hernández Vásquez in Guatemala, and urges Guatemalan authorities to act promptly and appropriately to investigate the crime and to identify and punish both the direct perpetrators and the masterminds.

On November 6, the bodies of journalist Hamilton Hernández Vásquez and his wife Ermelina Gónzalez were discovered by authorities on the highway between the municipalities of Coatepeque and Flores Costa Cuca in the department of Quetzaltenanago, Guatemala. The journalist was the host of the program Punto Rojo on Canal 5, a local cable access channel. The murders reportedly took place after Hernández went to cover an event on the night of November 5, after which he reportedly met up with his wife.  According to the information available, neither the journalist’s family nor his co-workers had any knowledge of threats against him.  

The State informed the Office of the Special Rapporteur that the authorities reportedly opened investigations in the case, but it is still not known whether the crime is connected to Hamilton Hernández’s work as a journalist. The Office of the Special Rapporteur has received information about the murder of seven other journalists in Guatemala during 2016. In those cases, the State also informed that the authorities are investigating whether these murders are related to the victims’ work as journalists and members of the media.

In the opinion of the Office of the Special Rapporteur, it is essential for the Guatemalan State to completely, effectively, and impartially investigate these crimes, which affect all of Guatemalan society. It must establish the motives for them, and legally determine whether there was any connection to the victims’ journalistic activities. It is fundamental for the authorities to investigate the facts without ruling out the theory that the murders may have been connected to journalistic activity and freedom of expression.

Both the Commission and the Inter-American Court have addressed the chilling effect that crimes against journalists have on other media professionals as well as on citizens who intend to report abuses of power or unlawful acts of any kind. This chilling effect can only be prevented, according to the Commission, "by swift action on the part of the State to punish all perpetrators, as is its duty under international and domestic law."

In addition, Principle 9 of the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression states that: "The murder, kidnapping, intimidation of and/or threats to social communicators, as well as the material destruction of communications media violate the fundamental rights of individuals and strongly restrict freedom of expression. It is the duty of the state to prevent and investigate such occurrences, to punish their perpetrators and to ensure that victims receive due compensation."

The Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the State of Guatemala to continue working on the establishment of a special protection mechanism for journalists that will enable it to confront the country’s serious and structural situation of violence against journalists and media workers. In this regard, the Office reiterates the advisability of having international support in the design and operation of the mechanism, and the need to ensure the full participation of journalists and civil society in the process.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the IACHR to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.