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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.