Part of the problem

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THE New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has once again ranked the Philippines third in its 2012 Impunity Index. The Index ranks countries all over the world on the basis of the level of impunity, measured as a ratio to population, of the killers of journalists and media workers in the previous year.

Occupying the number one place in the 2012 Index — i.e., it has the most number of journalists killed for which the perpetrators have not been punished — is Iraq. In second place is Somalia, followed by the Philippines at number three. Behind the Philippines in fourth place is Sri Lanka. In fifth place is Colombia, followed by Nepal in sixth, and Afghanistan in seventh.

The company in which the Philippines finds itself are countries that are either besieged by sectarian violence and foreign occupation (Iraq and Afghanistan); civil war (Colombia); are already failed states (Somalia); or recovering from civil war and ethnic conflict (Sri Lanka and Nepal); International observers puzzle over the continuing killing of journalists and the high level of impunity in the Philippines, the country being (officially) a democracy and not being (officially) at war.

The Philippines was sixth in the Index in early 2009, but was ranked third in 2010 because of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre and the continuing state failure to resolve the over 100 murders of journalists that have taken place in these isles of fear since 1986. Last year, the slow progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, and the killing of environmental advocate Gerry Ortega in Palawan and the suspected masterminds’ still being at large despite a warrant for their arrest, helped keep the Philippines in third place.

The Macapagal-Arroyo administration used to dismiss the Philippine ranking and UN Special Raporteur Philip Alston’s 2008 report that the Philippine police and military were responsible for most of the extra-judicial killings in the country as so much black propaganda, with its secretary of justice at one point declaring that Alston was “just a muchacho (houseboy),” and suggesting that the CPJ “jump in the lake.”

In contrast, there has so far been no reaction to the 2012 Index on the part of the Aquino III administration, despite the Index’s declaration that “even after the horrific 2009 massacre in Maguindanao province that claimed the lives of 30 (sic) journalists and more than 20 other victims, Philippine authorities have yet to effectively combat impunity.” A few local media organizations took note of the Philippine ranking, while plaintively asking how it could be improved.

The answer has been known for over a decade: the country’s ranking could improve only if impunity were ended or at least minimized, meaning if the perpetrators and masterminds of the killing of journalists are identified, tried, and punished.

Doing so has been exceedingly difficult, because of the weaknesses of the justice system, which include its glacially-slow processes; the collusion between the police and local officials; these worthies’ being themselves the masterminds and/or perpetrators; and, as starkly demonstrated by the “horrific” Ampatuan Massacre, the existence of warlord clans with private armies consisting of paramilitaries, bought and paid for police and military personnel, and other goons in over a hundred places in the Philippines. The Aquino III administration, however, has refused to dismantle the warlord armies and paramilitaries because they’re used to augment government military forces in counter-insurgency operations.

The killing of journalists has continued during the Aquino III administration as a result, with four killed in the line of duty during Aquino’s first year in office by the usual suspects (hired guns including police and military personnel in the pay of local officials). Although not killed for their work, the killing of at least three other journalists was nevertheless also a telling indication of state failure to protect citizens, including human rights and political activists, who also continue to be harassed, threatened and killed.

Significantly, since 2011 there has also been a rise in the number of libel suits against journalists despite a declaration by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in October that year that the Philippine libel law criminalizing libel is incompatible with the international human rights covenants to which the Philippines is a signatory. Various forms of harassments, including threats, physical assaults, illegal detention, and, in one instance, the burning of a radio station, have also occurred with increasing regularity.

Because Aquino III promised during the 2010 campaign for the Presidency of the Philippines to defend press freedom, enhance government transparency, and stop the killing of journalists, one would have expected his administration to have taken concrete steps by now to make good on those promises. Instead Mr. Aquino has refused to dismantle the private armies responsible for scores of human rights violations including the Ampatuan Massacre, while it took his administration all of 21 months to put together a Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that could help enhance access to information, earlier versions of it being actually restrictive.

Malacanang has submitted its latest version of the bill — which while not perfect (no law ever is) is acceptable to most of the press and civil society organizations that have been campaigning for an FOI since the 1990s — to the House of Representatives, but seems not to have done any political spadework to assure that it won’t be mangled beyond recognition, or will even pass at all. The FOI advocacy groups now fear that any bill that would survive the Congressional mill is not only likely to be watered down by a Congress whose members dread exposure of, for example, their hidden wealth and/or assets and net worth. It could also contain a Right of Reply rider.

Nueva Ecija Congressman Rodolfo Antonino has vowed to include in any FOI law a provision making the right of reply mandatory for the media, despite the fact that media organizations are ethically bound to open their pages or airtime to both or all sides of any controversy or issue. Antonino says he fears that the media would abuse the right to information once an FOI law is passed, and would compel media organizations to devote unlimited space and time to “replies” by anyone — mostly politicians — who feel that their side has not been given space or airtime. The bill would in effect punish ALL media organizations for the failure of SOME of its members to report all sides of a controversy or issue.

Antonino has filed an FOI bill with such a rider, thus making an FOI law meant to enhance press freedom at the same time the instrument for its infringement. The FOI law thus passed, rather than being part of the solution to the legacy of secrecy of the past Arroyo administration, would be part of the problem instead, which raises the question of whether, given the kind of officials this country has, any of the country’s problems can ever be solved in anyone’s lifetime. The political elite claims to be part of the solution, but is actually part of the problem.

(BusinessWorld)

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