Killing them softly (2)

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The New York-based press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of journalists killed since 1986 in the Philippines because of their work at 39. The Philippine Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) says those killed in the line of duty since that year now number 34.

Whether 39 or 34, however, three dozen is still a large number, and should be ringing alarm bells not only in the media community but also among the usual advocacy groups, especially those concerned with human rights and press freedom. The surprising thing is that it isn?t, and it?s the international press freedom groups that are showing concern.

By CMFR count, the Philippines started the year 2002 with 32 journalists dead because their reports or comments had angered local tyrants, vice lords, police and military men, or local officials. All those killed were from the community press. Most of them were involved in both print and broadcast media.

By May 13 this year, one more name had been added to that list with the killing of Zamboanga del Sur journalist Edgar Demalerio. On August 22, another journalist, Sonny Alcantara of San Pablo City, Laguna, was killed, bringing the total to 34. In arrogant displays of self-confidence, the killers of Demalerio shot him dead on a busy street in the early evening. Those of Alcantara were even bolder, killing him in broad daylight.

The killings are apparently not of concern in the national press community of the Philippines, which has been silent about them. Or among the owners of the media organizations with which the journalists were affiliated, which have similarly been tight-lipped. (Their respective broadcast media organizations paid the burial expenses of Demalerio and Alcantara, and let it go at that.)

But the killings are serious enough to raise concerns among international press freedom groups, among them CPJ and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

CPJ, which in 1989 described the Philippines as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, has sent a representative to look into the Demalerio and Alcantara cases.

RSF has been moved by the Demalerio killing to include ?Philippine security forces in Southern Philippines? on its list of international ?Press Freedom Predators.?

Bangkok-based Lin Neumann (who was a foreign correspondent reporting on the Philippines for several years) of the CPJ Asia desk visited Pagadian and San Pablo last week, talked to the police, local officials, journalists and the victims? relatives in both places?and is disturbed by what he found.

Among other findings, Neumann discovered something most Filipinos already know?that the justice system is easily thwarted, and witnesses to crimes coerced, because they are unprotected by that system from the likely perpetrators. Out there in the provinces, including their so-called urban centers, local tyrants and politicians and their police and military cohorts rule almost absolutely and do pretty much what they please despite what the laws say.

The state of the justice system helps explain why, of the previous 32 cases of journalists being murdered, not one has been solved since 1986?a significant date which supposedly marked the restoration of democracy in these parts. In the communities perhaps worse than in Metro Manila, the justice system is not only inept; it is also subject to pressure from the powerful, if not in virtual cohabitation with them.

The country has laws against murder, among other offenses. It has a witness protection program. Its Constitution protects press freedom and free expression in Article 3, Section 4, which warns that no law may be passed abridging free expression, freedom of the press and peaceable assembly. Article 7 also recognizes the citizens? right to information, a provision which goes all the way back to the Malolos Constitution a century ago.

In international conferences on free expression and press freedom, participants from other countries ohh and ahh when told about these Philippine laws as well as the Bill of Rights in the Philippine Constitution. They think the Philippines is a paradise of press freedom, free expression and freedom of information.

What they don?t know is that many government officials?from the President of the Republic to the mayor of some town in the hinterlands of nowhere?have discovered that the law is only as good as their willingness to implement it?and that it can even be used for purposes contrary to their intent.

Despite the constitutional protection of press freedom?which should be superior to any law passed by a bunch of ignorant hicks?for example, certain mayors have used municipal laws such as requirements for business permits to shut down radio stations.

Certain local authorities have also found out that despite the law, it is possible to eliminate your rivals as well as pesky journalists with impunity by using their connections in the local justice system and even in Metro Manila.

The near-total collapse of the justice system due to political interference and corruption is something most Filipinos are familiar with. They have discovered that the only antidote to the failure of this system and of other institutions is their direct involvement, either through massive displays of citizen outrage, or through advocacy work, day to day activism and organized action.

The killing of journalists, however, has provoked neither alarm nor outrage from media and human rights organizations. Neither is the ?strong republic? taking a break from presenting cell-phone snatchers and dead kidnappers to the media to even denounce the killing of journalists.

Never mind the National Press Club, but what are the press organizations and unions, the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (nearly all the journalists killed were also broadcasters) and other groups doing, or even saying about a process that has claimed three lives a year on average, and which is rapidly approaching crisis proportions?

Not much, only the sound of silence having emanated from these sources. And yet, as Neumann points out, 39 (CPJ?s count) is a fairly large number. In other countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, where journalists have only recently gained autonomy and attacks on press freedom are taken seriously, there would have been a universal outcry long ago, with people taking to the streets, marching to parliament and government house, and demanding action.

Not so in the country with ?the freest press in Asia.? Neumann says that San Pablo journalists feel isolated and helpless, among the leading reasons being their Metro Manila counterparts? apparent indifference. That indifference extends even to the failure of the Manila press to report the deaths of colleagues in the community press.

Except for Today and the Inquirer, no other Manila newspaper seems to have even bothered to report the death of Alcantara, much less follow up the Demalerio case.

And yet the community, though seemingly divided into Manila and community press, and by region as well as province, is only one. What happens to a part of it can have repercussions on the whole.

The Manila press community may now feel itself immune from threat and confident in its power to bring down presidents and to cause some of them to bring dinner to their offices. But there was a time only two years ago?and 10 years ago before that?when some of its practitioners had to have bodyguards and guns (or at least vary their schedules) because of death threats from what were widely suspected as government sources.

The impunity the killers of journalists in the provinces are enjoying also has a continuing demonstration effect which could result in people of similar tendencies testing the waters in Manila itself by, say, taking a shot at a particularly obnoxious broadcaster.

These considerations, however, should be only secondary. The press in this country has in various ways proclaimed itself a stakeholder in democratization by focusing its attention on the need for honest and efficient governance. It can only do that if it is itself free from intimidation. That a part of it is not, and is therefore under threat of failing to do its duty at the local level where democracy should be most vitally lived, should not only be of genuine concern. It should occupy the highest priority on the press? immediate and long-term agenda.

(ABS-CBNNEWS.COM/TODAY, August 30, 2002)

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