Philippine elections: the national is local

Voters in Region 8 exercise their most sacred right to vote for candidates of their choice. (PIA-8 photo by Vino Cuayzon)
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“Philippine elections,” says the British publication The Economist, “are always local and thuggish.” 

The “thuggish”  part every Filipino is, or should be,  familiar with. That’s the “guns and goons” in the “guns, goons, and gold” equation that too often decides the outcome of elections in those places where the police are either too weak to prevent voters from being intimidated, or are themselves among the thugs  in the pay of the local warlord.  These are the hoods responsible for the violence that characterizes most Philippine elections (but which the police always describe as “orderly and peaceful”). At least vote-buying, or the “gold” part that comes in both cash and kind, helps redistribute, rather than death and injury, the wealth that’s been stolen from the people.

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Killing journalists

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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.

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Impossible

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NOTHING is impossible, said President Benigno Aquino III last Monday during his third State of the Nation Address, while demonstrating in the same speech that certain things are just not possible in an Aquino SONA.

Apparently it’s not possible for Mr. Aquino to mention “Human Rights violations,” “extrajudicial killings,” “Freedom of Information,” “Ampatuan Massacre,” “the killing of journalists” or even “Reproductive Health” in his address. And it’s probably not because of the limitations of his vocabulary.

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The Massacre watch

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WHEN THE Ampatuan Town Massacre of November 23, 2009 occurred and its brutal details were known, it provoked attempts at self-examination among many media advocacy and journalists’ groups, and even in some of the newspapers and broadcast networks that for years had been ignoring the killing of journalists.

Among the questions these groups and some communication academics asked then, and have since been asking, is whether the Massacre has imposed on the media such supposedly additional responsibilities as providing more information than the daily news agenda makes available, and analysis and interpretation beyond the usual front-page, op-ed and evening news menu of politics and scandal.

The Massacre has since become an international symbol of the perils journalists face in failing and failed states (international media watch and press freedom groups have declared November 23, 2011 the International Day to End Impunity). It was not only election-related. It was also the worst attack in Philippine history on the press as a necessary institution of democracy.

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Asking for it

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THE SUPREME COURT has granted a petition for live coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial filed by media advocacy groups, TV networks, individual journalists, and academics from the University of the Philippines. But it has imposed conditions some media organizations are already describing as difficult if not impossible to meet. Some are already talking about filing a motion for Court reconsideration of some of the conditions. Others may decide not to cover the trial at all.

Among the guidelines media organizations find problematic is the Court’s requiring coverage of the entire proceedings each time there are hearings. The trial is currently being held twice a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays), and usually lasts from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Any TV or radio station that applies for and is granted permission (one of the conditions the Court is imposing) to cover the trial Branch 221 of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court is conducting would have to devote as much as five hours of coverage each time. No interruptions and commercial breaks are allowed except during recess periods, and no repeat broadcasts will be allowed on pain of the RTC’s withdrawing the station’s permit.

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Contradictions

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THE Ampatuan Massacre, the first anniversary of which journalist and media advocacy groups marked last Tuesday, November 23, achieved what had been exceedingly difficult to accomplish before it occurred. It provoked outrage among a people long desensitized by the levels of violence that characterize daily life in these islands, and put on trial a justice system that, with hardly anyone noticing, was failing to provide the value its official name promised.

When the Massacre exploded in the national consciousness, blame for the continuing killing of journalists as well as political activists had long been laid at its door — both for its weakness at the local level and its vulnerability to political manipulation at the center — as well as on police and military collusion with the killers and even direct involvement as assassins.

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Judging Arroyo

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A LETHAL combination of warlord politics, the privatization of police, military and paramilitary groups, and a fatal underestimation of the capacity for brutality of the local tyrants who rule with the gun over some 100 localities in this country resulted in the killing of 58 men and women, including two lawyers and 32 journalists and media workers, on November 23, 2009.

Because carried out to prevent the relatives of a candidate for governor from filing the latter’s certificate of candidacy, the Ampatuan town massacre has since been described as the worst incident of election-related violence in the Philippines. But it has also earned for the country the distinction of being the venue for the worst single assault on journalists and media workers in history.

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Tattered democracy

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THE PHILIPPINE ranking fell from 122nd in 2009 to 156th in the Paris-based Reporters San Frontieres’ (RSF- Reporters Without Borders) 2010 Press Freedom Index released on October 20.

The 2010 Index covers the period September 1, 2009 to September 1, 2010. The Philippine ranking had been rising in earlier RSF Indexes, despite the continuing killing of journalists in the country, and its portrayal in 2003 as “the most murderous place in the world for journalists.”

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Warning

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THE 2009 Ampatuan town or Maguindanao Massacre provoked, among other reactions, a warning that the Philippine state is on the verge of failure, or might have already failed.

The Failed States Index of a US-based organization called the Fund for Peace was suddenly on many people’s lips as well as in some columns and blogs. The Index is an annual monitor of some 178 countries, which it ranks according to how high the threat of state failure is: red for “alert,” meaning the states in the category have already failed; orange for “warning,” meaning the states so labeled display some of the indicators of state failure and could fail unless it takes appropriate steps; pale orange for states under “moderate” threat of failure; and green for states that are “sustainable.”

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Aquino against impunity

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THE incoming government of Benigno Aquino III is being greeted with a level of optimism that includes the hope that it will seriously address Philippine poverty by, among other policy options, putting in place an authentic land reform program to abolish the archaic land tenancy system. But its coming to power in the wake of the disastrous watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also presents it with the opportunity to address, mitigate, and possibly end the culture of impunity.

“Impunity” refers to the exemption from punishment of the killers of journalists and media workers, human rights and political activists, lawyers, even local officials and judges. A weak justice system is often blamed for impunity. At the community level that weakness is manifest in the collusion between hired killers, local officials, and police and military officers, or even in the killers themselves’ being police and military personnel, or assassins in the pay of local officials.

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