Attacks against the media and journalists, including assassinations, have become so common in this archipelago of violence they no longer surprise many Filipinos. But the burning of Cagayan community radio station DWRC is doubly significant.
The facilities of DWRC Radyo Cagayano in Baggao, Cagayan, were torched in the early morning of July 2 by eight heavily-armed men wearing ski masks. They bound and gagged station manager Susan Mapa, and volunteer broadcasters Arnold Agraan, Joy Marcos, Richard Ayudan, Arlyn Arella, and Armalyn Baddua. The men then dragged them out of the station before setting fire to station and its transmitter. They took the cell phones and other belongings of Mapa and company. The damage to the station was estimated at P1.5 million.
Mapa and colleagues blame the military, and to prove it said that some of the men wore army combat boots and fatigues, and addressed their apparent leader as “Sir.” But Kodao productions, a non-profit audio-visual group that provided technical assistance to the station, said the station was already being harassed by the military even before its test broadcast last May 27. In one incident, troops from the Army unit stationed in Baggao injured the president of the peasant group that established the station.
The reason for the pre-emptive harassment seems to have been the perception, even before it began broadcasting, that the station would be critical of the government. Not only did a local peasant organization initiate the station’s establishment. Funds for the station were also provided by the party-list group Bayan Muna. Both apparently flagged the station as “leftist” in origin and purpose.
The military has blamed the New People’s Army (NPA) for the July 2 incident, but that hardly makes sense. If Bayan Muna is a “front” of the NPA, as the military alleges, why would the NPA burn down a facility one of its “fronts” had funded?
The Bill of Rights protects free expression, as does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the Philippines is a signatory. Both protect everyone regardless of political belief. The international press freedom watchdogs pointed these out. The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Association Mondiale des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires –AMARC) also declared that community radio is “one way of giving a voice to the voiceless,” and that the destruction of DWRC is “a grave violation of [the people’s] right to communicate.”
Together with such other international press freedom groups as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres—RSF), AMARC asked the Philippine government to prosecute those responsible.
But the appeal is likely to fall on the usual deaf ears. It should be clear by now that such appeals to the Arroyo regime are a waste of time. The reasons are obvious enough. It won’t go after the killers of journalists because it looks at the press as a nuisance, and some journalists’ groups as “enemies of the state.” It won’t go after the killers of political activists for a more compelling reason. It can’t go after its own, the killing of leftist activists being so obviously part of the government policy to “crush the insurgency.”
The killing of journalists has not been as plainly a government policy. But the burning of DWRC could signal the beginning of a phase in the regime’s total war policy that will target the media with the same extra-legal means with which political activists have been targeted.
The Arroyo regime has of course targeted the media too, but the assaults have mostly been through the use, no matter how twisted, of such laws as inciting to sedition and libel. The killing of journalists has so far been the doing of local crime syndicates and local officials and their police henchmen.
The government offense is its failure, due to a basic unwillingness, to assure the safety of journalists. But if indeed government forces or groups funded and supported by the military were responsible for the DWRC burning, it could signal the start of a regime assault on media groups and individuals through force and other extra-legal means.
The burning of DWRC is also significant in that it links the campaign of suppression, intimidation and murder of leftist groups and leaders to the media. If indeed the military or groups close to it were responsible for the destruction of DWRC, it would mean that the Arroyo regime has crossed the line from the use of “legal” means for suppressing free expression and press freedom to the illegal destruction of a radio station that had been less than two months in operation. From there, government assassination of journalists would be only one small step in what is obviously a policy of pre-emptive, calibrated repression.
The burning of DWRC should forewarn Philippine press groups and their international allies not only of the killing of journalists’ continuing. They should also prepare for the use of force by government forces, including the assassination of journalists, in the coming months as the regime methodically tears the country apart.