Guns and the media

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More violence rather than less could be the result of the continuing killing of journalists. Previously rejected by various media groups, police suggestions that media people arm themselves now resonate favorably among those who believe they could be next.

The shooter in one of the most high-profile cases in the Philippines since 1986 has been convicted and sentenced. But the killing of journalists has not abated. The latest occurred on the heels of the conviction of former policeman Guillermo Wapile, whom a Cebu Regional Trial Court found guilty of shooting to death journalist Edgar Damalerio.

Damalerio was killed on May 13, 2002 in Pagadian City. It took three years for Wapile to be prosecuted and convicted because he was being protected by Pagadian policemen and politicians. Damalerio’s colleagues and family believe that Wapile was only a triggerman and that someone else ordered Damalerio’s killing, probably because of his exposes on local government corruption.

Wapile was convicted last November 29, right in the middle of a series of killings that began in mid-November with the shooting of a Sorsogon City broadcaster, went on to claim the life of a print journalist in Laguna, and continued until December 1st, when radio reporter George Benaojan was shot dead in Cebu City.

The toll so far since 1986 is 73 journalists killed. Benaojan was the 10th killed this year, prompting the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) to describe 2005 as “one of the worst years for [the] Philippine media”.

Out of the 73 journalists killed since 1986, said NUJP, 36, or more than half so far, have been murdered since Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power in 2001, “making her administration the worst in the history of the country insofar as the killing of journalists is concerned”.

Even as NUJP released its statement, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP-Broadcasters’ Association of the Philippines) in Cebu, and other media groups there, announced that they will start training journalists on the use of firearms starting 2006. KBP-Cebu president Edward Abad said that because of continuing threats to journalists, they should not only arm themselves but should also be trained in firearms.

It does seem to make sense to many journalists, and could at least make would-be assassins think twice before attacking them. But the arming of practitioners could have the long-term consequence of encouraging vigilantism and fueling more violence. An armed journalist could get into the habit of shooting at any suspicious character, for example. And no matter how well trained, it’s a rare journalist who can prevail in a shoot-out with a seasoned killer. What’s worse, it would make the protection of journalists their responsibility rather than the police’s.

As NUJP has several times pointed out, in being targeted for harm or assassination, journalists are no different from other sectors of the population, among them lawyers, judges, political activists, workers and farmers who have been abducted, shot at, and killed in the Philippine countryside with impunity.

The primary reason for the impunity is the weakness of the justice system especially at the local level, where policemen and local politicians are usually in league with each other, and share the common interest of seeing to it that whatever wrongdoing they’re involved in is not exposed by the media or anyone else.

Policemen have also served as the triggermen in media and political assassinations in the Philippine countryside. The Philippine military also encourages the killing of “enemies of the state”–among whom, last year, it included several media organizations including the NUJP.

For these reasons as well as the obvious one that the killings reflect badly on the police and the Philippine government as a whole, the Philippine National Police (PNP) has been steadfast in claiming three things: (1) that the killings are not a trend; (2) that it has solved a number of the killings; (3) and that the killings would stop if journalists were fair and honest.

PNP spokesman Leopolodo Bataoil thus insists that the killings are “isolated cases,” even as a PNP press release last week alleged that it had “solved” the Laguna killing with the identification of two suspects. On the other hand, the Cebu Provincial Police Office Director, one Vicente Loot, said journalists need only to be fair for the attacks to stop.

Media should be fair. They should report facts and real issues and not resort to personal attacks. You can … shout to the whole world about alleged anomalies or illegal deeds as long as they’re within the ethical standards of broadcasting,” said Loot.

If 36 killings in four years, or an average of nine a year is not a trend, compared to none or a handful in other countries during the same period, then what would be a trend to the PNP? A journalist assassinated every month? Every week? Every day?

On the other hand, the PNP’s definition of “solved” clashes with the common sense definition which says that a case is solved if someone’s been arrested, prosecuted and convicted of an offense. As so defined, the PNP batting average would be one in 19 years—the Damalerio case, to solve which, incidentally, media organizations had to go to Malacanang and the highest levels of PNP leadership merely to have Wapile arrested.

The implication of Loot’s (that’s pronounced “loh- oht,” incidentally) ignorant and presumptuous prating, on the other hand, should be obvious to anyone with at least a double-digit IQ. He’s saying that all those killed were “unfair” and did not “report facts and real issues,” which is why they were killed, and rightly so.

Does being a bad journalist merit assassination? Philippine journalism teems with dishonest and inept practitioners, many of them in the provincial press who can’t tell the difference between a summary lead and a summary execution. But to imply that a journalist who has been unfair in his reporting deserves to be shot to death is somewhat like implying that a taxi driver who crosses a red light deserves a lethal injection.

How to stop the assassinations? I suggest that we start by lecturing to the police on the basics of its responsibility, which is to protect members of the public, and not deliver ill-informed, self-serving lectures on media ethics and professional standards. Maybe then it can improve on its record by arresting more than one triggerman every 19 years. Meanwhile, thanks to police incompetence and malice, journalists’ arming themselves, while understandable, could result in more rather than fewer bodies on the streets.

(Business Mirror)

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