Monday, April 24, 2006

What to tell the children

This weekend I will be speaking before children of killed journalists. Will I tell them their parents died because they practiced a very hazardous profession? Will I tell the children the death of their parents were necessary for the future of this country?

Our colleagues who were killed died because they had to work for their children to be able to go to school, eat a proper meal and have a better future. Maybe I will tell the children that their parents did not want to be heroes. Our colleagues who were murdered did their job to have food on the table for their families to survive. Nothing more. Nothing dramatic. Nothing mushy.

I wrote the article below for last year’s observance of World Press Freedom Day. It was published by the World Association of Newspapers and can be accessed at The information on Esperat’s killing was incomplete. The article was written the day she died.

March 25, 2005, Good Friday. The streets of Manila were empty. The airwaves were silent as Filipinos, mostly religious Catholics, go to churches. Local television and radio stations were off the air. Others broadcast religious shows. Newspapers did not publish. Journalists were on vacation. But the killers were not.

A message came on my mobile phone as I wrote this article to meet the deadline. “A local columnist in Tacurong City (in the southern Philippines) who had been a vocal critic of [a former congressman] was shot dead in her house,” the message reads. The sender identified the victim as Marlene Esperat of the local weekly Midland Review. She’s the third Filipino journalist to be killed in 2005.

The wave of killings that made the Philippines the most dangerous media hot-spot after Iraq in 2004 seems to continue into 2005. At least two journalists were already killed early this year, bringing the death toll to 15 since January 2004. If Filipino journalists are flies, they’re just dropping dead.

Romeo Sanchez, a broadcaster in the northern city of San Fernando was shot dead by a lone gunman on March 9. On February 28, Arnulfo Villanueva, a columnist for the Asian Star Express Balita newspaper was also killed. His body was found on a roadside. Police suspect he was killed because of his criticism of local officials over illegal gambling.

“The ordeal of Filipino journalists will only end when these ruthless assassins are brought to justice,” said Aidan White, secretary general of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). “It’s time for the authorities to do more to find the killers,” he said. He challenged the Philippine government to conduct a “credible and extensive investigation” of the killings and commit to protect other journalists from violence.

But Aidan’s call will most likely fall on deaf ears. Journalists are being killed with impunity in the Philippines. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) counted at least 66 journalists killed in what could be work-related murders since 1986 when democracy was restored in the country. The highest number was in 2004, a year that would likely be remembered by the Philippine press as a year of infamy.

There has been no single conviction for a journalist’s murder since 1986. And the killers seem to be getting bolder. The killings were most of the time followed by gloating calls and more death threats to the newsrooms. The climate of impunity is such that murder of a journalist also sparks a rash of death threats in other regions.

Even witnesses to the murder of journalists are being killed. On February 2, three unidentified gunmen shot school teacher Edgar Amoro, primary witness to the killing of journalist Edgar Damalerio in 2002. Amoro was killed despite the fact that he was under the government’s witness protection program.

Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, demanded for “more than just lip service from the government” after Amoro’s murder. “It is high time that officials made good on their promises to uphold press freedom by bringing those who murder journalists to justice,” she said.

Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, said the “countries with journalists’ blood [like the Philippines]” should take “effective action to find and prosecute their killers.”

“The sheer number of journalists killed in 2004 is cause for deep concern,” Cooper said. “But the fact that so many were murdered with impunity is shameful and debilitating. Governments have an obligation to pursue and prosecute those responsible. By failing to do so, they let criminals set the limits on the news that citizens see and read.”

Without a doubt, the criminals are having a “field day” slaughtering or distressing members of the press. Due to lack of action and justice, the crooks are becoming bolder and resolute in attacking the media. Some groups even tried to scare journalists into silence. Information surfaced about the alleged existence of a “hit list” targeting at least two journalists in each province.

“The journalists’ killings, their threats and insults, and...the liquidation of key witnesses in their cases, have definitely cemented the infamy the country earned as one of the worst places in the world for journalists,” the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) said in a statement.

“The impunity with which the killers of journalists have been able to get away with the murders and threats is alarming, threatening press freedom and the viability of Philippine democracy,” it added.

The Philippines has been regarded as a haven for journalists for having perhaps the “freest” press, but for having a democracy providing a virtual paradise to murderers and killers, any place in the country could be a hellfire for media.

The killing also highlighted the rising cases of threats and attacks against journalists.

Maximo Quindao, an editor and publisher based in Mindanao, was seriously wounded when unknown gunmen shot him on January 29. Three days later, a businessman threatened journalist Luz Rimban of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, after she linked the businessman’s company to illegal logging activities. On February 8, Manila-based columnist Pablo Hernandez survived a assassination attempt suspected to be orchestrated by high-ranking police officers.

Early this year the government issued a statement criticizing an IFJ report on the government’s failure to protect journalists and solve the killings. The government labeled the IFJ report as “misleading.” A government spokesman, referring to police leads where suspects were either identified or arrested, claimed that the Philippine National Police already solved “majority of the cases involving the slaying of journalists.”

Data from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility revealed that only two cases resulted in the identification, prosecution and conviction of suspects. The family of one of the victims, however, believes the convicted person was a “fall guy” of the real mastermind behind the killing.

In 2004 alone, there were only two “serious” government investigations on the killing of journalists. None of these led to any prosecutions. Government data also revealed that since 1986, 15 cases of murders of journalists are pending in courts while 27 remain under investigation. None resulted in a conviction.

Impunity, the failure to prosecute and to punish those responsible for the murders, is the primary reason journalists are still murdered in the Philippines.

“The killings are also indicative of the generally low levels of security available to everyone, not only to journalists, especially in the countryside where police and military officials are often in collusion with the local officials and criminal syndicates that journalists frequently target,” said Luis Teodoro, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines.

He said the unsolved ambushes and murders of other citizens and the impunity with which security forces arrest and torture crime suspects also encouraged the killers of journalists, who have discovered that journalists do not have any special powers that could enable them to gain redress.

“The killing of journalists in the Philippines is a symptom of a deeper problem of governance rooted in the failure of the justice system,” Teodoro said. The killings also put in serious question the Philippine claims to democracy because they target a fundamental right, the right to a free press, without which no society and no government can claim to be democratic.

The only way for the culture of impunity to end is for the government to apply the full force of the law and due process to bring the killers, and those out to silence the media, to justice. It is high time for the public, the authorities, the media, the religious sector, the business community to make a strong stand against violence, particularly the series of killings of journalists and denounce various human rights violations.

Hopefully it would not be too late. These days it is not uncommon to see journalists carrying a gun even in the middle of the city. “I pack a pistol. In case it rains, at least I have an umbrella,” said a reporter who has been receiving death threats for almost a year now. He said he will fight back and is ready for it.

Some are not that tough. “Life here is dangerous,” said a journalist from a city in the southern Philippines. Because of threats to his life he avoided writing investigative stories. “It’s not worth dying for. I don’t want to sacrifice my family,” he said, adding that the threats and the killings brought about a “chilling effect” on media practitioners.

Something has terribly gone wrong. But in the Philippines, where one top police official admitted that every time he sees a journalist his blood boils, nothing seems to be going right. One thing, however, is certain. Despite the killings and intimidations, Filipino journalists will continue to practice journalism. Unfortunately, some are desperate. “There’s no middle ground here anymore for journalists,” one reporter said. “Either you become corrupt or you get killed.”

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