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.)

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