Uniquely in Asia, only the Philippine press is protected by a Constitutional provision prohibiting the passage of any law abridging press freedom. But also uniquely in Asia, more journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since 1986.
Were it not for the war in Iraq, the number of journalists killed in the Philippines this year would have made the country unique in the planet. In 2003, only the killings in Iraq as well as Colombia and Afghanistan saved the Philippines from the distinction of being the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. The international press freedom advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF–Reporters Without Borders) nevertheless describes the Philippines today as “the world’s most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq.”
Colombian guerillas and drug lords have targeted journalists now and then. In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, journalists have been targeted rarely, though by both US forces and their guerilla antagonists. Those killed in these countries–62 in Iraq since the March 2003 US invasion, and 42 this year–in most instances were in the wrong place at the wrong time in settings that are extremely dangerous to begin with. They were, as the Americans would put it, collateral damage–like women, children and other non-combatants.
That journalists have been specifically targeted as journalists in most cases makes the situation worse in the Philippines, itself in a state of war that for its perennial presence has over the decades made things seem normal. Since 1986–a crucial year in the war among this country’s political and economic elite and in the war between the elite and the poor–59 Filipino journalists have been killed at an average of three a year. Last year broke the average at seven, as well as the 1986 record of six. But this year has broken both the average and the 2003 records at, so far, ten killed, two within a week.
The inevitable and usual questions have been asked in the wake of the November 12 shooting of photojournalist Gene Boyd Lumawag in Jolo, Southern Philippines, and the death last November 15, a few days after he was shot, of broadcast journalist Herson Hinolan in Iloilo, Central Philippines.
These are questions to which many journalists and curious citizens have not found answers. One of them is why journalists continue to be killed, despite the protest marches, the petitions, the press statements, the support of international press freedom groups and journalists’ federations, the meetings between journalists and the highest police officials–even with the Secretary of Interior and Local Governments and the President of the Philippines herself, who has offered a bounty of P1 million for information leading to the arrest of the killer or killers of journalists. The next question is linked to the first: how to stop the killings–a question to which the answer depends on why they happen and continue to happen.
Other questions suggest themselves, among them what impact the killings have had on press freedom, and why the public, for the most part, seems indifferent to a problem that has grown into crisis proportions.
The answers are not as obvious as they may seem. As far as press freedom is concerned, for 2003 the RSF press freedom index ranked the Philippines 118th among 166 countries, below South Korea, Hongkong, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, even Malaysia. An RSF statement dated November 17, 2004, describes the week of November 7 to 13 as “a black week for press freedom” because of the killing of Lumawag and the attack on Hinolan (who was initially wounded), as well as attempts on the lives of at least two other Filipino journalists. Other journalist groups have warned of the chilling effect the killings will have on press freedom.
What is surprising is that only a very few journalists’ groups have expressed alarm, and there is little evidence that Filipino journalists are about to stop attacking in their columns, editorials, radio commentaries and TV programs government officials, assorted wrong-doers, and anyone else they get in their cross-hairs.
Despite RSF’s dire predictions, Filipino journalists seem to be taking the killings in stride. One suspects that it’s because, like other Filipinos, they too are used to the violence and other disorders in and of Philippine society, to which the usual response is resignation and fatalism. Despite predictions to the contrary, it is thus unlikely that we will see a diminution in the virulence with which journalists, especially at the community level, exercise their Constitutionally- guaranteed freedom.
There is a downside to this fatalism. People resigned to the way things are don’t do anything about it, and one can sense even among journalists that very same attitude, at the core of which is the self-fulfilling belief that nothing can really be done, and all efforts along that line are bound to be wasted.
The fatalism not only of journalists but of nearly everyone else helps account for the continuing killings. But the fact that no one has been punished for any of the 59 murders since 1986 is even more fundamental. Only one suspect is currently in police custody–the ex-policeman Guillermo Wapile, who is accused of shooting Edgar Damalerio of Pagadian City in 2001, and who, for nearly three years had eluded arrest.
With that kind of a record, assassins can only be assured of getting away with their next murders. But it is a mistake to believe that only the killers of journalists literally get away with murder in the country of our sorrows. The killers of judges, of college coeds, human rights activists, striking workers, and other citizens get away as well, thanks to a flawed justice system so weak it is inevitably partial to the wealthy and/or well-connected, who include assassins in the payroll of the various lords–whether drug, gambling, smuggling, or war–of this sorry realm. Journalists are not, in this sense, especial.
Any effort to put them in a special category–such as the passage of laws that would make killing them a heinous crime, or providing them guns so they can defend themselves–ignores the plight of the rest of the citizenry, who are regularly beaten, robbed, harassed, kidnapped and murdered up and down the archipelago of our nightmares. It is also unlikely to stop the murders.
What can end the killing of journalists is the very same solution that will end crime in the streets: police and judiciary reform thorough- going enough to end police collusion with criminal groups and local warlord-politicos and partiality to the wealthy and powerful; and which will put upright judges in the courts and courageous prosecutors in the Justice Department. Only when that happens will everyone including journalists be safe.
What’s ironic, however, is that these very same reforms are among the advocacies for which journalists have been killed. In advocating these and other reforms, without knowing it journalists become partisans in the protracted struggle between the powerful and privileged who’re happy with the way things are, and the poor, dispossessed and powerless who have been fighting for change in this country for three centuries.
More than anything else, that partisanship–dictated in every instance by many journalists’ sense of outrage and fury at injustice, misery and suffering even if it be only their own, their families’ or their neighbors’–accounts for the killings as well as the threats and the harassment. This country too is at war.