The Maguindanao or Ampatuan Massacre, the third anniversary of which journalists’ and media advocacy groups are commemorating today across the country, was not primarily focused on attacking the 32 journalists and media workers who were killed in the worst incident of violence against the media in history.
The intention of the masterminds behind the killing of a total of 52 men and women was to prevent the filing of Esmael Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for governor. The Massacre was “political” in the narrow sense that politics is understood among the families and clans that contend for power in this archipelago of tears.
The earlier, and, it turned out, the tentative, decision was to separate the media from the others in the convoy. It was an option the alleged brains behind the Massacre rejected not only because there would have been too many witnesses to the killing of the 26 non-media people; the witnesses would also have been from the media.
The casualness with which the decision to kill the media people was reached suggests how deeply rooted in warlord culture—perhaps even in the culture of local politics—is the assumption that whoever holds power in a town, city or province outside Manila could get away with anything, murder included.
Not only the arrogance of power is the likely source of that assumption. Certainly the fact that before the Massacre of November 23, 2009 only ten of the 92 cases of other journalists killed for their work had been solved with the conviction and sentencing of the killers and their accomplices —and that no mastermind had ever been brought to justice—contributed to the confidence that despite the numbers involved, the planners and implementers of the Massacre could also get away with killing journalists.
There is no indication that the Massacre had anything to do with the way the journalist victims had been reporting on Maguindanao politics. But the Massacre was nevertheless an attack on journalists for being journalists because, had they been spared, they would certainly have reported on the killing of Mangudadatu’s wife and kin, his lawyers, and his political workers. The journalists were far from being the collateral damage that six other men and women who happened to be travelling along the same highway were, who were similarly killed, and their vehicles buried with them.
The murders of journalists that had been taking place before the Massacre, and which have been taking place since (twelve since the Aquino III administration came to power in 2010) were in most cases far more focused on their being journalists. From the very start these were provoked by the masterminds’ awareness and resentment of what they had already reported or commented on, and were meant to stop them from continuing to report or comment unfavorably on this or that individual or group.
The killing of journalists is in this sense a testimony to the effectiveness of the journalistic enterprise, the journalists having discovered some anomaly or the other, and were likely to discover, and to report and comment on, others. A 2006 study by the Center of Media Freedom and Responsibility established as much. Ninety percent (90%) of the journalists killed for their work from 1986 to 2005, that study found, were exposing, writing and/or commenting on local corruption and the activities of criminal syndicates.
Journalists are therefore being targeted in the Philippines because, despite the great difficulties inherent in a situation in which reporting accurately and fairly is too often compromised by corruption, conflicts of interest, incompetence, bias, and low skills levels, the information the public needs does somehow manage to reach it through the press.
Part of the reason is that it has become a prime directive in the Philippine news media to try to get at the truth somehow—and to be critical of those in power. The determination to get at the facts, and, what’s assumed to be an even more basic responsibility, to expose wrongdoing among those in power, are presumed even by the untrained to be the beginning and end of authentic journalism. In the communities, for example, the highest accolade one can bestow on a journalist, whether he or she is a reporter or commentator, is the attribution “hard- hitting.”
But how explain this predisposition against the powerful, whether they’re businessmen, landlords, or government officials?
The answer lies in the common disappointment among Filipinos with those in power. The crisis of poverty, injustice, and mass misery, for which the wealthy and powerful are often, and in most cases, justly blamed, has thrust upon the country’s writers, whether they’re journalists, poets, fictionists, dramatists or screenwriters, the responsibility of examining and making sense of what’s happening in the Philippines and to Filipinos.
If poets and fictionists have responded to this responsibility by representing their interpretation of the human condition in their works, among journalists the response has been to provide, as much as possible, a literal description and critique of the environments, whether natural or social, in which Filipino lives are lived.
Few, except such notable exceptions of coherence and self-examination as the late National Artist Nick Joaquin—who was a novelist, a poet, and a playwright as well as a journalist—would describe their responsibilities in these terms. But what they do, if done with at least some honesty—if achieved through even minimal adherence to the ethical and professional standards of their calling—is exactly that.
The bottom-line commitment of journalists in this country to chronicle what’s happening in it helps explain not only the antipathy towards journalists among those who have something to hide, but the hostility as well of those who expect laudatory reports and comments from journalists on the basis of their self-serving perceptions of their supposed achievements. But most of all does it explain why journalists have been killed and are continuing to be killed—and why those in power who are in a position to help prevent it, including Presidents, don’t.