THE incoming government of Benigno Aquino III is being greeted with a level of optimism that includes the hope that it will seriously address Philippine poverty by, among other policy options, putting in place an authentic land reform program to abolish the archaic land tenancy system. But its coming to power in the wake of the disastrous watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also presents it with the opportunity to address, mitigate, and possibly end the culture of impunity.
“Impunity” refers to the exemption from punishment of the killers of journalists and media workers, human rights and political activists, lawyers, even local officials and judges. A weak justice system is often blamed for impunity. At the community level that weakness is manifest in the collusion between hired killers, local officials, and police and military officers, or even in the killers themselves’ being police and military personnel, or assassins in the pay of local officials.
Although the killing of journalists and media workers had not previously seemed to be part of government policy, signs that the killing of journalists was in some communities actually being encouraged by the police and military began to emerge in the last five years of the Arroyo regime.
Among the signals were the inclusion of journalist groups in the police and military list of enemies of the state, a list which includes the NPA and the CPP; and the addition of the names of journalists in military Orders of Battle in some localities.
Regime indifference and such military schemes as the arming of paramilitary groups and support for local warlords already constituted a de facto policy of encouraging attacks on and the killing of journalists from 2004 onwards.
Already notorious before November 23, 2009 for the number of journalists killed during the nine years of its watch (42 out of 80 killed in the line of duty since 1986, or over 50% of those killed), the regime gained further notoriety when 32 journalists and media workers were killed in the Maguindanao Massacre last year. Those killings brought the number of journalists and media workers killed in the line of duty during the Arroyo regime to 74, and boosted the total of those killed since 1986 to 112.
The number of such killings in relation to the population has boosted the Philippine ranking in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Impunity Index from sixth place in 2009 to third place in 2010 behind Iraq, where the murderous consequences of US invasion and occupation continue to target journalists, and Somalia, where a mindless insurgency is similarly attacking journalists.
In pointing out that while Iraq and Somalia are immersed in conflict, the Philippines is officially at peace and is supposed to be a democracy with a functioning law enforcement and justice system, CPJ has put its finger on one of the factors that has led to the development of the culture of impunity: the weakness of the justice system that is at the same time exacerbated by government indifference to and even encouragement of extra judicial killings, the latter in furtherance of its anti-insurgency policy.
Government encouragement, and, some suspect, orchestration of extra judicial killings is supposed to be in behalf of preserving democracy. In reality they undermine democracy by discouraging free expression and citizen engagement in public issues. They have also diminished press freedom, to which the Arroyo regime paid occasional lip service, but which it systematically attacked through threats, libel suits and even the barring of journalists from public events (the most recent being the oath-taking of Arroyo Chief Justice designate Renato Corona).
Regime hostility to press freedom as evidenced not only by such acts and its indifference to the killings, but also by its initiatives against the press undermines the democratic imperative of monitoring government, especially at the local level where most of the killing of journalists has been happening.
And yet the killing of journalists as well as that of human rights and political activists, lawyers, etc. could have been easily discouraged: all it required was a statement from the President that they should stop and that the state would prosecute all those responsible. No such statement was ever issued by Mrs. Arroyo, thus boosting suspicions that she was at least tolerating them.
Mr. Aquino III has vowed to prosecute Mrs. Arroyo for violations of the Constitution among other offenses, which most certainly would include tolerating the killings in total contravention of her oath of office.
While holding her to account for, among others, the spike in the killing of journalists during her watch will take time, Mr. Aquino can immediately do something to minimize if not stop the killings and other attacks on journalists by announcing, once he assumes office, a policy, completely opposite that of the Arroyo government’s, of zero tolerance of the impunity that has encouraged extrajudicial killings, including the killing of journalists and media workers.
A number of journalist and media organizations and personalities have been working to stop the killings by conducting public awareness campaigns, assisting in the prosecution of the suspected killers and masterminds, and even providing humanitarian assistance to the families of slain journalists.
Under the Arroyo regime their work has been as difficult, as problematic and often as frustrating as rolling the huge boulder of impunity uphill only to have it roll down again and again. The shift in state policy Mr. Aquino can immediately put in place would be among the deserved fruits of their labors, and a contribution to the healing of the democracy the Arroyo regime has so thoroughly mangled .