Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The ‘culture of impunity’ and press freedom

Among journalists in the field, there is no doubt about the so-called “culture of impunity.” Although many among media practitioners don’t know what this “culture” means, much more understand its nuances, they know that impunity stares at them every moment of their lives – killers drink with them Friday evenings, masterminds of heinous crimes attend Mass with them on Sundays, drug traffickers and pickpockets, kidnappers and even terrorists are sources of information.

Through the years, Filipino journalists, especially those based in the provinces, have become witnesses of how society and its actors – criminals, government officials, the police and the military – work. Journalists do their job– to witness and chronicle events around them. There was a time in the past that the media and media practitioners played active roles in resolving conflicts.

There was also a time, not so long ago, that from the eyes of criminals, the media and media practitioners were not threats to illegal activities. There were times that even some media practitioners were into illegal activities themselves or were involved in some illicit acts.

The media and most media practitioners are well aware how wide and broad the reach of criminals. Journalists know how criminals work. That is why when media practitioners became the target, they were afraid.

In the early 1990s, I went home to Mindanao to write a story about a family of politicians who lorded it over in at least three provinces since 1945. Many of their political opponents were killed, lawyers who handled the cases of the victims were either killed, threatened or "bought." So were the judges and prosecutors. I still remember how one courageous prosecutor was ambushed while he was on his way to court one early Monday morning. I wrote the family’s story. My report came out in the front pages of several national and local papers. Days later, some of the newspapers retracted the story and apologized, one continued to publish my follow-up reports and was sued. The editor of the local paper that reprinted the story was killed. I haven’t dared go back to that province. The family of warlords still reigns, although some of them met violent ends. Nobody dared to write another story about that family.

In a celebrated case of a journalist’s murder, the gunman was convicted, but was not brought to the national penitentiary until media groups discovered that the convict was operating a videoke bar beside the provincial jail and was playing tennis with the jail warden once a week. The mastermind or masterminds of the murder are still at large. A high-ranking intelligence official in the province said he has an inkling who the mastermind was, a gun for hire said he knows the mastermind. The gunman refused to talk. Those in the know said the gunman prefers to be in jail and keep his silence than end up silenced. Local journalists who knew the real story left the profession and also kept their silence. I tried to do a story about it and ended up being the subject of privilege speech in Congress and declared persona non grata in that province.

In another case of media killing where a policeman was charged, a witness was arrested by police officers inside the courtroom when he was about to testify. The arresting officers said the witness was a suspect in an estafa case. The judge did not do anything. There was no objection from anyone. The case remains in limbo.

In the case of the killing of an environmental journalist somewhere in Luzon, the gunmen confessed to the crime. He said the mastermind was the town mayor who was not charged by the prosecutors. Media groups raised hell until the Justice department transferred the case to Manila. The mayor was arrested and charged but tried to negotiate a deal with the victim’s family.

These are clear examples how impunity in the cases of the killings of journalists in the country hinders, if not threatens, press freedom. Based on the list by the National Union of Journalists, 93 journalists were killed for whatever reason since 1986. Whether their deaths were related to their work or not is supposed to be for the courts to determine. But until now, the cases are not prospering in the courts. In the few instances when cases prospered, people in power – politicians and even some police officers, were involved.

There are many reasons given why the cases are not moving. The media understand these reasons. Journalists talk to lawyers, judges, and attend court hearings. Many reporters even go to law school. The media can understand the many weaknesses in the system. What is difficult to understand, however, is the seeming apathy even among people who are supposed to be in the know – journalists and lawyers – in responding to the situation. In 2005, there were about 50 journalists killed since 1986, but nobody wrote about it, talked about it, met about it, much more file a case in court, until the international community started to look into the situation.

Who would want to write about what’s really going on in the southern Philippines? Who would want to write about drug syndicates and kidnap-for-ransom syndicates? Who would dare talk about the real story of the Abu Sayyaf, the corruption in government involving those in power? Nobody seems to dare write about the truth these days because people – witnesses, journalists, lawyers – are afraid. Because those who dare talk are silenced and those behind the attacks of journalists and lawyers remain unpunished. What press freedom? There is none until the so-called culture of impunity continues to reign in this country.

(This is an edited version of the author’s speech before prosecutors, members of the Philippine Bar and representatives of various international lawyers group and civil society groups during the “International Training Course on the Investigation and Prosecution of Extrajudicial Killings, Enforced Disappearances and Torture for Public Prosecutors and Legal Practitioners” in Subic, Zambales over the weekend.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Inquirer Editorial: Judgment call

The tragedy of the kidnapping of television journalist Ces OreƱa Drilon and her intrepid crew has been compounded by the length of time it took the story to emerge. It happened on Sunday; most of the news media knew about it, at the latest, early Monday; but it didn’t reach public knowledge, at the earliest, until Monday night.

It was the government propaganda machine that made an embargo moot and academic—in direct contrast to the usual official line that the media are reckless in their quest for a scoop. When state-owned television channel NBN-4 broke the story in its Monday evening news broadcast, the authorities quite consciously got the ball rolling, which made Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye’s subsequent appeal (“Likewise, we appeal for caution and restraint in media reportage as not to unduly hamper efforts to rescue them”) the height of official hypocrisy.

Although a radio station aired a flash report on the kidnapping, it didn’t repeat the story. Many other news outfits were prepared to run it, but ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. news and current affairs head Maria Ressa appealed to rival news organizations to embargo, or withhold, the story until 6 a.m. on Tuesday. Her argument was that things on the grounds were so confused at that point, and that ABS-CBN had to be quite fearful for the lives of its people. We believe that the concern about the situation turning more volatile—possibly fatally—because of premature reporting was valid.

The peace and order situation has been brittle in Mindanao for some time. Any initial reports on the kidnapping of Drilon and her companions would have immediately escalated the situation.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, through its president, Jose Torres of GMANews.tv, said, “If that story came out, it might have angered the abductors and the captors could have been harmed.” He knows whereof he speaks, having published a book on the Abu Sayyaf’s kidnappings. Media outfits are aware of the peculiarities of the Abu Sayyaf; and how it has a fetish for journalists and doesn’t treat them with kid gloves, as Arlyn de la Cruz recounted in Wednesday’s issue. It is this familiarity with the dynamics of a kidnapping that ultimately informed the decision of organizations to consider ABS-CBN’s appeal for a temporary embargo on the news. This was not a case of professional solidarity trumping public interest, but precisely, public interest demanding a thorough vetting of the story before its release to a society already jittery about renewed prospects for conflict in Mindanao.

Which is not to say the media haven’t been taken to task for what one respected voice in Philippine journalism bluntly called an attempt by ABS-CBN to “manage the news.” Vergel Santos said “People there [in Sulu] can be lulled into a false sense of security,” and for that reason, “the complete story had to be given to cover all possibilities and lessen speculation.” But people in the area most certainly knew what had transpired, as the fairly regular updates coming from concerned members of the Mindanao People’s Caucus will attest.

With tensions in Muslim Mindanao running high, and the military, among other institutions, primed to shoot first and ask questions later because of having been caught flatfooted by the bombings in recent weeks, reporting a suspect could have led to either a wild goose chase or a crescendo of noise from all sorts of groups claiming responsibility merely to hog the headlines.

A case in point showing how confusing things were was the spectacle of authorities publicly mulling over whether one of the kidnap victims, Professor Octavio Dinampo of the Mindanao State University might have been in cahoots with the kidnappers. And yet Dinampo is well known in NGO circles as president of the Mindanao People’s Caucus, which has been active in the promotion of the peace process. This suggests to us the mistrust with which the authorities view Muslims in general, and anyone not subscribing hook, line and sinker to the government’s “message of the day” concerning Mindanao.

We are, however, duty-bound to do unto others as we would do unto ourselves. Torres says the consideration given ABS-CBN should now be extended to the families of all kidnap victims. In this sense, the decision among rival media outfits to respect ABS-CBN’s request for an embargo means that a policy shift has taken place. An embargo should now be standard operating procedure for all the media in the initial hours of a kidnapping.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Appeal for release of journalists missing in Sulu

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is deeply concerned over the reported abduction of broadcast journalist Ces Drilon, her crew, Jimmy Encarnacion and Angelo Valderama, and their host, peace advocate Octavio Dimampo, in Sulu by what authorities say are members of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Whatever the abductors stand for, whatever their goals are, there is absolutely no justification for seizing journalists whose sole concern is to seek out the truth and present this as accurately as possible.

To them, we say, release Ces, Jimmy, Angelo and Mr. Dinampo. Seizing them cannot in any way serve your ends and can only bring down condemnation on your heads.

We call on authorities to exert all efforts to ensure the safe return of the journalists and their host. We are also urging for sobriety among our colleagues in the media in reporting about the incident so as not to aggravate the situation and endanger Drilon and her companions.

We are only too aware of the risks journalists go through in our work. Too many journalists are sent into dangerous coverage situations without adequate preparations and safety measures. Many silently bear the scars and traumas of their coverage, with hardly any support from those who profit from their toil. It is time Philippine media owners soberly assess the situation and take steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our colleagues oftentimes caught in the line of fire just to get the news out.

To the families of Ces, Jimmy, Angelo, and Mr. Dimampo, we are one with you in praying for their safe return.

Joe Torres
Chairman - NUJP