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THE speed with which the Philippine National Police has identified, and filed murder charges against, the suspects in the killing of an Ilocos Norte journalist was unprecedented.

Police investigations into extrajudicial killings and the killing of journalists, if they take place at all, usually move with the speed of flowing molasses. This time the investigation, identification of the suspects, and the filing of charges took place in one week in what must be the police equivalent of lightning speed. It is also unusual for local officials to be so quickly charged , the alleged principal being the vice mayor-elect of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte. But that he has not yet taken office and established the usual networks with the police and the military could have helped hasten the process.

The vice mayor-elect is being charged with the murder of broadcaster Jovelito Agustin last week — the second of three murders of journalists in a five-day period. Radio broadcaster Jesiderio Camangyan was killed last June 14 in Davao Oriental, and Nestor Bedolido last June 19 in Davao del Sur.

One broadsheet implied that the killings happened because the gun ban had been lifted last June 9. The dismantling of police checkpoints could have been a factor in the killings. But the decisive reasons why the killing of journalists goes on, and why three should occur immediately after the elections are rooted in the way journalism is practiced in the provinces as well as in the weaknesses of the justice system.

Two of the killings seem to have been politically-motivated, part of the fallout from the violence that precedes, attends and follows Philippine elections. But they were also examples of the entanglements journalists and media workers get into in the provinces. The killing of Agustin, like the killing of Bedolido, was very likely the consequence of involvement in local politics. Bedolido was part of the campaign of a candidate for governor of Davao del Sur, for whom, Digos media workers say, he worked as “a writer” — or, as the police put it, “a propagandist.” Bedolido had previously worked for the provincial government’s newsletter, but changed over to the rival of the incumbent.

Bedolido had been writing articles in a paper critical of local officials, in some cases exposing alleged corruption. He thus shared with some 90 percent of the journalists who have been killed since 1986 what appears to be a commitment to exposing local corruption and criminal activity.

But while among those killed since 1986 were journalists exposing corruption whoever was guilty of it, others expose only the corruption of selected local officials because they’re in the pay of these officials’ rivals. The result is their identification as partisans of this or that politician, and their being prioritized for harassment, intimidation, or murder because of the perceived impact of their commentaries or reportage.

The masterminds in the killing of journalists implicitly recognize the power of the media. It’s a power even those who have not had a day’s training in journalism have appropriated through various means, among them through “blocktiming” — the practice of buying “blocks” of radio time which are then used for programs paid for by local politicians. Many of those killed in the provinces were not surprisingly “blocktimers” whose commentaries their targets believed were damaging them before the listening public. Blocktimers were among the 32 journalists and media workers killed in Maguindanao on November 23, 2010. Apparently the masterminds in that massacre believed the media people accompanying the wife and relatives of gubernatorial candidate Esmael Magundadatu were his partisans.

If the actual messages conveyed through print or broadcast can and have led to the murder of blocktimers as well as legitimate journalists, and help explain why the killings persist, an even more vital reason is the message the weaknesses of the justice system have been sending to the would-be and actual killers of journalists and the masterminds behind them. These weaknesses, which include police and local officials’ involvement in many of the killings, result in the exemption from prosecution and punishment of 98 percent of the killers and masterminds — or what has come to be known as the culture of impunity.

During the about–to- end term of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the media commentaries themselves and the culture of impunity were not the only sources that encouraged the killing of journalists. Mrs. Arroyo’s messages about the media included not only the suggestion that the media are scandal mongers, purveyors of libel (her husband filed 11 libel suits against 46 journalists) and inciters to sedition. They also included the sly implication that as “enemies of the state” some media organizations had been labeled, they were fair game for the assassinations the military was orchestrating against political activists. Especially provocative was Mrs. Arroyo’s singling out for praise a general accused of some of the most brazen violations of human rights in this country.

If the killing of journalists is about messages, to stop it the incoming government of Benigno Aquino III must send its own. Mr. Aquino has so far sent two. The first was his assurance that the extrajudicial killings, and, we presume, the killing of journalists, must end. The second was his choice for Secretary of Justice Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima. During his predecessor’s term, no such statements ever emanated from the Palace. Where a plain declaration that the killings must end could have helped, Mrs. Arroyo instead encouraged the harassment of journalists and to applaud a general accused of at least tolerating extrajudicial killings. Her choice for Justice Secretary didn’t help either.

Mr. Aquino deserves praise this early for the messages he has sent about the killings. But the one truly effective message he can send once he assumes the Presidency is to see to it that the killers of political activists as well as of journalists are prosecuted and punished as a matter of state policy.

(BusinessWorld)

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