Thursday, May 25, 2006

Early bird

Thanks to Radio Veritas, I woke up at 5:30 this morning and was able to attend a forum on media killings in Pasay at seven o’clock.

What I personally hate about the spate of killings of journalists in the country is the early morning radio interviews. They always wake me up at 5 a.m. Most of the time, I get the first break of reports from production assistants who call to tell me to “stand by” for a live phone interview. After three to five of these radio interviews I already memorize what to say the whole day for television and newspaper reporters.

What a way to start a day.

It was good to be back in the field. I was reunited with friends and colleagues of more than 10 years after so many years of not hearing from each other. Some have grown thin, others have gained weight. Some have been promoted, while others remain field reporters although transferred to other beats. What’s good to hear is they’re enjoying their lives.

The 777 breakfast forum invited me and my friend Joel Egco to expound on the issue of arming of journalists that became front page story of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Journalists split over issue of arming selves
By Alcuin Papa

Editor's Note: Published on Page A1 of the May 25, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

FILIPINO journalists are divided over the issue of arming themselves after Malacañang remarked the other day that it was amenable to it as a way of stopping the wave of killings of media practitioners in the country.

Joel Sy Egco, president of the Association of Responsible Media (ARM), yesterday said the Palace pronouncement was “most welcome.”

“Finally, they (Palace officials) have come to their senses and have heeded our call to give us a fighting chance when confronted with a violent situation,” Egco told the Inquirer.

He added that “media is also responsible to police our ranks” and get rid of “bad eggs” and irresponsible journalists.

But Jose Torres Jr., spokesperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said his group believed that arming journalists would only beget more violence.

“We don’t believe in that. We don’t believe arming journalists is the right answer to the threats to our lives. It’s just an invitation to more violence,” Torres also told the Inquirer.

At least 79 journalists have been killed, mostly by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles, since 1986 when a “people power” uprising ousted the Marcos dictatorship and restored press freedom in the country, according to the NUJP. More than half of the killings have taken place during the Arroyo administration.

The latest fatality, broadcaster Fernando Batul, was shot and killed on Monday in Puerto Princesa City.

Not work-related

Director Emmanuel Carta, chief of Task Force Usig, told the Inquirer that 31 of the 42 killings involving journalists since 2001 were work-related. “The suspects are those that the victims have written about critically on radio or print,” he said.

He said it was the individual’s judgment call on whether to seek security from the police or to get a gun.

Carta said the killings could also be partly attributed to the large number of “loose” firearms in the country.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has directed the military and police to “look after and account” for journalists, along with left-wing activists and politicians, amid mounting criticisms here and abroad that her administration was purportedly tolerating the killings.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Ms Arroyo issued the order during a security cluster meeting on Tuesday, which was also attended by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and top military and police officials.

Arroyo directive

“She has put her foot down. Her directive is very strong -- let us stop these killings, look after them and account for them. She wants the police and military to hasten the investigations in order to put to rest the spate of killings,” Ermita said in a briefing yesterday in Malacañang.

Egco’s ARM is advocating the right of journalists to bring guns for as long as they satisfy legal requirements. It is seeking strict rules in securing permits and licenses as a deterrent against illegal firearms in the hands of criminals.

Arming media persons should not be the end of the government’s efforts to solve the killings of journalists, said Egco, a defense reporter of the Manila Standard Today.

“We see that the government has neglected efforts to solve the killings. What is needed to help us journalists prevent the killings is to arrest the perpetrators of past killings and bring them to justice,” he said.

Losing end

Torres, online news editor of GMA 7, noted that some of the journalists killed in the past had been armed. “Whether we bring a gun or not, we can still be shot and killed because any suspect intent on killing a journalist will succeed. We are still at the losing end.”

He added: “We are not trained to fight and to kill. We are trained to write and to expose the truth. That’s the job of the police and the military.”

Torres criticized top government officials for their inability to solve the killings.

“While we agree with Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye when he said that the pen is mightier than the sword, we find the statements of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez ironic when he said he is amenable to arming media. It is a virtual admission that the justice system is helpless and inutile to solve the killings,” he said.

The government should instead “look deeper and pursue the cases,” he said.

“File cases against those who are suspects and masterminds, no matter how high their positions are. They should set an example. We challenge Gonzalez to give teeth to what he is saying and investigate and prosecute the killers of journalists and not look the other way,” Torres said.

The justice secretary does not “have the faintest understanding of press freedom” since it was he himself who ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct surveillance on Visayas-based journalists when Presidential Proclamation No. 1017 was issued, he added.

Amnesty Int’l report

Ermita said it was “lamentable” to hear harsh criticisms from local and international groups, including the Amnesty International (AI) which condemned the “climate of impunity shielding the perpetrators,” but the former general and defense secretary shrugged them off as nothing new.

He said the government’s commitment to human rights was engraved in the Constitution, which, he noted, was the only one in the world that included the establishment of a Commission on Human Rights.

In a statement, Bunye said: “The conjectures of Amnesty International are unfair and misplaced. There is no such thing as climate of impunity in the Philippines. We uphold the rule of law and criminal justice will eventually catch up with killers of whatever bent or stripe.”

Bunye said the killings were being investigated and that suspects had already been pinpointed and were being hunted down.

Culture of violence

Reacting sharply to Malacañang’s plan to allow “legitimate” members of media to carry firearms to protect themselves from assassins, Bayan Muna party-list Representative Satur Ocampo was quick to describe it as a “bankrupt idea” as it would perpetuate the “culture of violence” in the country.

“Adopting a policy of arming journalists is an admission of failure of governance,” said Ocampo, who once worked as business editor of the Manila Times before martial law, during a dinner with Inquirer senior editors and reporters on Tuesday.

“Does the government want a country with a large group of paranoid and armed journalists who may end up doing more harm than good?” asked Cavite Representative Gilbert Remulla, erstwhile chair of the House public information committee.

He said arming journalists was not the solution “because this option has long been available to journalists and yet has not deterred their killers.”

De Castro

Vice President Noli de Castro also rejected the proposal.

“Arming media men is not and will never be the answer to the spate of killings of journalists,” said De Castro, himself a former broadcast journalist for 20 years.

He said that no amount of guns could protect mediamen from determined assassins. “In fact, implementing a measure to arm media people may be seen as an indictment of the failure of our law enforcement authorities to maintain peace and order.”

The NUJP spokesperson called on his fellow journalists “to be more vigilant and aware of their safety.”

“The best defense is the ethical and responsible practice of journalism,” Torres said.

“We respect the desire of journalists to bear arms. They have that opinion as long as they follow the rules. But we don’t believe that’s the solution. Journalists are better off being more vigilant of their safety and conscious of their security rather than to bring a gun,” he said. With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Michael Lim Ubac and Cynthia D. Balana

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