Promises and word games

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Research reveals—and every concerned media advocacy group agrees—that no one is serving a prison sentence for any one of the 55 killings of journalists that have taken place since 1986. But between promises to solve the latest killings, four of which took place within a two-week period starting July 31, the Philippine National Police says that it has solved 14 of the 55 cases.

How to reconcile the difference between the PNP claim and what such groups as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), and the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) know?

The answer is that the police defines “solved” differently from the rest of us, who naturally and logically think that “solved” means closure in the sense that someone has either been punished for a crime, or is being punished for it by, among others, doing jail time.

The PNP is so unlike the rest of us, however, that it considers a case solved, say its spokesmen, when it either has a suspect, or already knows—or is morally convinced?—who killed a journalist. Describing a crime as “solved” doesn’t necessarily mean the police has the perpetrator or perpetrators in custody, or that someone has been tried, found guilty, sentenced and imprisoned for committing a crime.

In the list it released to the media the other day, the PNP thus included as “solved” the 2002 killing of Pagadian City broadcaster Edgar Damalerio, and the killing in the same year of campus journalist Benjaline Hernandez, among others.

The inclusion of the Damalerio killing in the list is at the very least interesting, because it does suggest that the PNP, which once upon a time had the suspect in custody, accepts the possibility that that suspect might very well have committed the crime. The Damalerio killing was more important than that, however, in that it could have been a turning point in addressing the killings.

The perennial police complaint that it can’t act because it doesn’t have witnesses did not apply in the Damalerio case because two witnesses did say they saw who killed the broadcaster-print journalist (Damalerio was also an editor of a community newspaper in addition to being a cable TV and radio commentator).

The suspect in that murder was a policeman, but his superior, the then police chief of Pagadian, instead pointed to one of the witnesses as the killer. That was so atrocious a claim that the local court paid no attention to it, and after some time did issue a warrant of arrest for the policeman-suspect.

Dismissed from the service by PNP headquarters, the suspect, who was supposed to be in the custody of his police colleagues, promptly disappeared, thus provoking suspicions that he had been allowed to escape. The suspect is still at large, although his face has been plastered in numerous newspapers and news websites in a countdown (“It’s been two years and____ days since the murder of Edgar Damalerio, but the killer is still at large”) media groups succeeded in being printed daily.

He has been sighted several times, and at one point was even said to be “campaigning” (meaning doing goon-work) for a local politician during the last elections. Meanwhile, as has become usual in this strange country, it’s the family of Damalerio and the witnesses who’re in hiding for fear of their lives. In these circumstances, no one in his right mind would describe the killing as “solved” unless he or she’s playing word games with journalists as well as the public.

The killing in 2002 of Benjaline Hernandez was the subject of a campaign for justice by human rights groups. Hernandez was a campus journalist who was in immersion in a rural community to write a story and to do her thesis on agrarian reform. She was a member of the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines, the oldest organization of college newspaper editors and staff members in the country. Human rights groups say she was killed by Army troopers on suspicion that she was a New People’s Army (NPA) guerilla, which the Army has denied,

The police list of 14 “solved” cases, however, identifies the killers of Hernandez as “Army soldiers”, as the human rights groups that looked into her case have been saying for the last two years. As in the Damalerio case, no one is in jail or awaiting trial for the offense. None of the “Army soldiers” the PNP says were responsible is in the custody of either the police or the military justice system.

It’s not only one more instance of the police word game. The Hernandez case also has several things to say about the state of journalism in this country and the killing of journalists.

The NUJP includes Hernandez in its list of murdered journalists, although, because she was a student, she is not regarded by some groups as a “professional.”

And yet the distinction between “professionals” and “non-professionals” hardly makes sense in a situation in which there have evolved such creatures as “volunteer reporters”; “journalists” who’re not paid for reporting but for the ads they solicit; “reporters” who’re actually doing public relations for politicians or who’re police and military assets; and lately, even “journalists” who’re actually Army, Navy and Air Force soldiers who’ve been given ten days’ training and who will be deployed in radio stations and newspapers in Western Mindanao as part of the military’s “campaign against terrorists.”

In addition to the obviously low regard for journalists by the military, which one can deduce from its belief that ten days’ training can make one a journalist, there is also the fact that anyone—and I mean anyone, including security guards who happened to be manning the newspaper office in the absence of its staff—can be a “journalist” in the communities.

That means people who have not attended a single day’s seminar on the basics of journalism. In that sense the soldiers who’ve undergone ten day’s training might be better trained than some “professionals.” Hernandez would definitely have been better trained, given her experience in her college newspaper, and the CEGP’s numerous training programs, of which she was a graduate.

In this context, Hernandez deserves inclusion in the list of murdered journalists, not only because others whose professional status may be questioned are in that list, but even more importantly because, “non-professional” as she was, Hernandez was nevertheless preparing a story on agrarian reform, and at least had enough respect for the facts to research on it among its beneficiaries.

All these regardless, the bottomline, given the complex state of “journalism” in the Philippines, is to determine whether an individual has been killed for doing journalistic work, or for getting into an argument with a drinking partner and being shot in the aftermath. Distinctions between “professionals” and “non professionals”, the quality of the work being done, and whether the victim was corrupt can create the illusion that only some of those killed, rather than all of them, deserve justice. This would at the same time imply that irresponsible and bad reporting as well as unethical behavior are capital offenses.

The Hernandez case also raises the additional question of whether, in taking the greatest pains to describe the killing of journalists as solely a press freedom issue, journalists’ and media advocacy groups may not be isolating journalists from the rest of the public they’re supposed to serve. The killing of journalists, as the NUJP has suggested, is indicative of the state of democracy in this country not only because of its impact on press freedom, but also because of what it says about the state of the larger domain of human rights.

Eighteen years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship, and despite the existence of a government Commission on Human Rights, not only journalists but activists, farmers, workers, and other Filipinos have also been killed, harassed, beaten and intimidated for “offenses” ranging from doing research on agrarian reform, to manning picket lines and just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As in the case of the murder of journalists, despite the PNP’s claim that some cases have been solved, no one has actually been arrested, much less tried and punished, for committing these atrocities.

The Manila-based media have paid scant attention to the escalating number of human rights violations over the last three years. The critical proportions the killing of their colleagues has reached has compelled Manila-based journalists to look into what can be done to halt the assault on the press. But the crisis should also provide them the opportunity to see the killings in the context of the larger issue of human rights violations, and what’s more, to demand accountability from the justice system beyond promises and police word games.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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