Arming journalists

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There are several things wrong with Philippine National Police chief Hermogenes Ebdane’s decision to make it easier for journalists to arm themselves, but let’s just mention three of them.

The first is that it frees the police from the responsibility of protecting journalists, who, as citizens, are entitled to state protection just like everyone else.

The second is that, given the preference of the killers of journalists for ambushes and other forms of treachery, it won’t make their task any more difficult than it is now, when journalists have been killed even within spitting distance of police stations.

The third is that it is likely to add to the violence rather than to subtract from it. Once armed, what’s to stop certain journalists from whipping out their guns and firing at whoever they suspect is after them at the least provocation? Journalists are not necessarily the most responsible people on this side of the planet. They are not immune from yielding to the sense of power a gun imparts on even the sanest among us.

Ebdane has anyway decided to relax permit-to-carry-firearms (PTCFORs) requirements for journalists under threat in the wake of the spate of killings and shootings of community broadcasters. His solution does look devastatingly simple. If journalists are being attacked, his reasoning probably went, why not provide them the means to fight back?

That would give journalists responsibility for their own protection, which the police might as well surrender to everyone else. The Philippine National Police has after all not arrested a single suspect since the killings—all 47 of them, and counting—began 18 years ago at an average of three a year.

Police collusion in the “escape” of one suspect has even been alleged. In 2002 a policeman was tagged by witnesses as the principal suspect in the shooting of Pagadian City broadcaster Edgar Damalerio, despite the efforts of the policeman’s superior to blame someone else. The now ex-policeman “escaped” from police custody before he could be served a warrant of arrest, and is still at large.

Invited to a meeting with the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists in the same year, the PNP leadership and the Secretary of Interior and Local Governments pledged to do their utmost to apprehend not only Damalerio’s, but the killers of other journalists as well.

The police batting average is exactly zero. As in the case of other crimes, its failure to bring even one perpetrator to justice has encouraged further killings. But it’s not police incompetence or plain indifference alone that has created the current situation various press freedom groups all over the world as well as in the Philippines have described as critical.

Four journalists have been killed for their work this year, starting February, when radio commentator Ruel Endrinal was shot dead in Legazpi City. The Endrinal killing was followed by the shooting of Ely Binoya in South Cotabato on June 17, of Roger Mariano in Laoag, Ilocos Norte last July 31, and of Arnel Manalo in Bauan Batangas last August 5.

Manalo’s shooting was followed by two more incidents involving journalists. General Santos City radio reporter Jonathan Abayon was shot in the head last Sunday and is in critical condition. Three “broadcasters” (more on why the quotation marks are needed later) in Cebu were also fired at during the weekend, but survived.

Journalists’ groups like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and press freedom groups like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) are still looking into the last two incidents, to determine if the attacks were work-related. But the tentative conclusion is that they were not.

Abayon was shot by an alleged bodyguard of boxing champion Manny Pacquiao over what seems to have been an altercation during the previous night’s drinking bout. The three Cebu “broadcasters,” on the other hand, may not have been deliberately targeted. On board what Cebu’s Sun.Star Daily described as a “luxury vehicle,” they could have been the victims of an attempted hold-up, the intersection where the shooting occurred being a high-crime area. It was also dark and raining, which reinforces the possibility that whoever shot at the three were thieves—possibly car thieves—looking for targets of opportunity.

Though possibly not work-related, the last two cases do suggest the complex context in which the killing of journalists has been taking place.

Many journalists in the communities are not professionals in several senses. They were not trained in journalism. Many do what they think is “journalism” part-time. Still others do it for no other purpose than to use the media for narrow, personal ends.

Some are public relations people of politicians, and use the media to further their patron’s interests. Others are “assets” of the police and the military. Many work in the government’s Philippine Information Agency, which, despite its name, is in practice no more than the public relations arm of national and local politicians.

Many “journalists” in the communities, to sum up, are caught in a web of complex relationships in which they invariably accumulate enemies, in addition to their doing violence to the core ethical and professional values of journalism. General Santos radio reporter Abayon, for example, was described by those who knew him as not likely to have been shot because of his work, perhaps because he fit the description of many local “journalists” who have one foot in the media but who have the other—and probably both arms as well—in other pursuits.

The three Cebu “journalists” meanwhile, turned out to be more engaged in pursuits other than enlightening the public. One admitted that he was a “consultant” in the local NBI office. The two others turned out to be broadcasting “volunteers.” The three were in fact armed with a .45 pistol and—get this—an Ingram machine pistol, courtesy of one of their number’s “consultancy” with the local NBI chief.

This discovery prompted the NUJP to advise journalists to avoid engagement in government agencies for their safety’s sake—although it is doubtful that the three can stand the usual tests of legitimacy as journalists, in the first place.

Although there is no proof that any of the journalists killed since 1986 were in any way similarly involved in government—particularly hose favored places of extra employment, the police, the NBI and the military—journalists do tend to live convoluted lives in which how they do their jobs as journalists is complicated by their involvement with the police, the military and politicians, as well as crooks, gambling and drug lords, and other equally sinister figures.

One of these complications is the common practice of serving as the attack dogs of these interests, which in many instances has led to inaccurate and biased reporting, virulent attacks on their patrons’ rivals, libel and slander, and plain, garden-variety lying.

Some victims of journalistic malpractice have gone so far as to declare that filing libel suits is too good for those who habitually destroy reputations and who poison the well of public opinion by spreading lies rather than the truth that’s the fundamental responsibility of journalists to report.

But the “national press” should not feel that it is superior to its community counterparts. It’s not only in the community press where the professional and ethical values of journalists can be questioned.

For example, former secretary of foreign affairs Roberto Romulo has filed a P50 million libel suit against a Manila broadsheet, its publisher and its editors after he failed to have his side published in the newspaper itself, and was equally unable to provoke action by the press self-regulatory body the Philippine Press Council. The case, now under litigation, has put in serious question the willingness more than the capacity of the press to conduct itself without abusing its power, and to honor aggrieved citizens’ right of reply.

The Romulo case mirrors cases of lesser visibility in the communities, where practitioners abuse citizens for various, often personal, partisan, and narrow motives, and the right to reply is routinely ignored.

It is more than possible that the killing of journalists has become rampant among other reasons because of the irresponsibility of many practitioners. This irresponsibility does not merit assassinations. But neither does it merit arming journalists with guns.

Arming journalists with the truth, as a June 18 statement of the International Free Expression Exchange suggests, and beyond that, with the ethical and professional sense that demands accuracy and fairness in both news reporting and comment, could help prevent further killings more than an armory of Ingram machine pistols provided by the National Bureau of Investigation ever could.

In the meantime, the police could do worse than just do its job of looking for the killers of journalists instead of abdicating its role of protecting the citizenry, in which category journalists belong, and proposing “solutions” the NUJP has justly described as irresponsible.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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