Fifty-three journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 2001, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power. Known in their communities as radio and TV broadcasters, as newspaper reporters and as columnists as well as publishers, 33 were killed for reporting or commenting on a public issue.
The reasons for the killing of the remaining 20 vary from undetermined to personal grudges and involvement in local politics. But the distinction hardly matters, not only in that they’re as dead as their colleagues, anyway, but also in the fact that their killers have not been caught.
Only two cases–broadcast and print journalist Edgar Damalerio’s in Pagadian City, and print columnist Marlene Esperat’s in Sultan Kudarat–have been successfully prosecuted. But while the assassins in these cases have been tried and convicted, the masterminds remain at large. Eleven other cases are “under investigation”–a phrase in double quotes because they’re probably more in limbo than anywhere else. Five are under trial, and five more dismissed. The rest are nowhere.
When told these numbers, a TV broadcaster who seems to have spent the last few years in a cave commented that the numbers didn’t seem much. Compared to the over 800 extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of political activists, 53 indeed seem few. But not only does their significance go beyond the numbers. The killing of journalists in the Philippines is also a consequence of the same culture of impunity that encourages the killing of activist students, church people, labor and peasant leaders, human rights advocates, lawyers, doctors, judges.
As used to violence and death as most Filipinos are, some if not most of them are indifferent to the killing of journalists. And yet these killings strike at the very heart of the constitutional guarantee of press freedom and free expression–rights the charter protects precisely because they’re crucial to the realization and survival of any democracy.
Only in areas of conflict and failing states are journalists killed on the same scale as in the country whose press was once referred to as “the freest in Asia”. The killings are outstanding enough to put the country in the map as, at one point, “the most murderous place in the world for journalists” (Committee to Protect Journalists), and in another, as “the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists next to Iraq” (Reporters Sans Frontieres).
The culture of impunity–nurtured by the indifference of governments in prosecuting the killing of their perceived enemies as well as of journalists and other trouble-makers–is the primary reason why the killings continue. That only two cases have been successfully prosecuted–prior to 2006, none–encourages the killing of journalists as much as it encourages the killing of political activists. The killing of journalists must thus be seen in the same context of poor and biased law enforcement, based on political expediency, that has become the outstanding hallmark of the Philippine justice system.
Human rights groups have argued that the killing of activists is part of a government policy. This accounts not only for their continuing but also for the near-zero apprehension and prosecution of the killers. While the killing of journalists, on the other hand, seems random and far from orchestrated, it does share with the former the same official indifference when it comes to investigating the killings and arresting the suspects and prosecuting them are concerned. It is that indifference–in partnership with the involvement of local officials and the police–that has made prosecution nearly impossible and encouraged further killings.
But public apathy as much as official disinterest has created a climate in which assassins kill journalists with impunity. As in the killing of political activists, the outrage they should provoke has been notable for its absence. There is a difference in the indifference, however. While the middle class in the communities has been properly alarmed at the killing of journalists, it is the mass base of the militant groups that has been most outraged over the killing of political activists.
Middle class spokesmen and women do pay lip service to condemning the killing of political activists. But between the lines of their statements one can detect their reservations over having to defend “leftists” and “communists.” They refer to “front men of the left,” for example, thus echoing the police and military claim that those killed belonged to “communist front” organizations, and indirectly validating the killings even as they seem to condemn them. These learned commentators need to look into themselves. They may be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Some journalists’ groups have been similarly accused of being “communist fronts” and “enemies of the state,” among them the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Such accusations–made for no other reason than these organizations’ performing the essential task of monitoring government–feed into the dominant biases of the police, the military and the paramilitary and vigilante groups it funds, arms and trains, and other formations prepared to use violence against those they don’t agree with. These tags constitute official encouragement.
The roots of the killing of journalists and political activists can in this sense be traced to one and the same source: to a policy and a corresponding culture of political partisanship that while applied only to political activists has had an inevitable echo in the press community in the form of the killings that this year have so far claimed one victim. And the year is not yet over.
(Parts of this column were in the text of my July 16 presentation on the killing of journalists at the Supreme Court Summit on Extrajudicial Killings.)