Interesting times for journalists

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As if to announce to the country and the world that being attacked for doing their jobs is still a fact of journalists’ lives in the Philippines, an assassin riding pillion on a motorcycle shot dead a radio broadcaster in Davao City last Christmas eve.

Francisco Lintuan was killed in his car when he stopped at an intersection, and was probably slain for his commentaries, thus making him the second journalist killed in the line of duty this year. Carmelo Palacios, another broadcaster, was killed last April 18 in Nueva Ecija’s Cabanatuan City. Both were noted for their harsh criticism of local corruption.

International media watch groups had earlier noted “improvement” in the Philippine press situation as far as the killings were concerned, since Palacios was the only press casualty for 2007 as December approached.

The same groups had also expressed optimism that the situation would continue to improve compared to 2006. Presidential spouse Mike Arroyo had withdrawn the 11 libel suits he had filed against 46 journalists, two suspects in the 2001 killing of an Aklan journalist had been arrested, and government hostility towards the media seemed to be abating. In 2006 anti-media government policies put the Philippines in these groups’ lists of countries where the press was only “partly free,”

But the arrest of over 30 journalists and media technicians covering the Peninsula Hotel incident last November 29 dampened the optimism, and so has Lintuan’s killing. All’s not well in the prosecution of journalists’ killers either, in which the culture of killer impunity, the result of the intricate web of police-judiciary-local interest collusion, is not only alive but thriving.

An eyewitness in the May 2006 killing of Palawan broadcaster Fernando Batul was thus prevented from testifying in the trial of a former police officer for the killing. Ferdinand Bayles was instead arrested on the strength of a 1998 warrant for alleged involvement in an illegal cockfight.

Prosecution lawyers said there has been “a consistent attempt” to prevent their witnesses from testifying, and cited two previous attempts to block their witnesses, which, however, they managed to prevent.

Tactics such as this have resulted in only two convictions of journalists’ killers since 1986, despite such bright spots as the arrest of two suspects in the 2001 killing of Aklan journalist Rolando Ureta.

The arrest came six years after the deed, and only after persistent efforts by the lawyers of Ureta’s family. The case against the two suspects had in fact been dismissed twice by the Aklan prosecutor, first in 2004 and again in 2005. It was reopened only last January 16 after the Department of Justice, heeding a petition by Ureta’s widow, ordered it.

The continuing killing of journalists, the conviction for libel of at least three others, the media arrests last November 29, government threats to arrest journalists covering situations similar to the Peninsula incident, and even open threats to cancel broadcast network franchises, have cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of press coverage in the country as the year ends. But while the killing of journalists sets the country apart from other non-combat zones where journalists have not been deliberately targeted, the fact is that press freedom has been taking a beating worldwide.

For example, in the so-called “Democratic Republic” of the Congo, nearly 40 radio and television stations have been shut down since October, in what the government says is an effort to “clean up the profession.” The official reasons: “failing to conform to laws” regulating the media industry, not paying taxes, or not having valid licenses.

Although several of the stations affected have since paid their taxes or submitted the required documents, they have not been allowed to resume broadcasting.

Ten journalists are in jail in Azerbaijan for a number of charges based on their critical reporting of government affairs, reports the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

IFJ also noted other cases worldwide of “routine abuses of journalists’ rights”:

A journalist has been sentenced to a year in jail in Tunisia due to a controversy involving the police after months of harassment over articles critical of the government.

The Pakistan government has filed charges against the Federal Union of Journalists and its subsidiary union for demonstrating against the anti-media rules imposed by President Pervez Musharaff during the state of emergency last November.

Three journalists are being prosecuted in Israel for visiting Lebanon and Syria as part of their work.

For criticizing a government minister, four media workers in Nigeria are being held by police on defamation charges, while two others have been accused of criminal offenses for covering the Tuareg rebellion in that country.

But that the abuse of journalists’ rights is worldwide is small consolation, given the continuing killing of journalists in this part of the planet, and the apparent government policy to make reporting as difficult as possible in behalf of its effort to prevent information on certain matters of public concern from reaching the public. The year 2008 should prove to be as interesting for the press as the past six years of the Arroyo watch have been.

(BusinessWorld)

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