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.”

The Index measures the state of press freedom in 178 countries across the globe, and, claims RSF, “reflects the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.”

IRSF uses a questionnaire with 43 indicators to look into the state of press freedom in each country. The questionnaire, says RSF, “includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). And it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations.”

RSF looks not only into abuses by governments, but also into those committed by
“armed militias, clandestine organizations and pressure groups.”

The questionnaire is sent to the 15 freedom of expression groups in all five continents that are RSF’s partner organizations, as well as to “its network of 140 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.”

The Philippines’ ranking 156th puts it in the same company as Kyrgizstan (159th), Somalia (161st) , and Tunisia (164th), among others at the low end of the RSF scale. (Africa’s Eritrea is the bottom dweller, with a ranking of 178th). The reason for the country’s fall was the massacre of 32 journalists in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009, for which 197 accused individuals are currently on trial.

For the same reason did the country’s ranking rise, from an already high 6th place in the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2009 Impunity Index, to 3rd in 2010.

The CPJ Impunity Index measures the extent to which the killers of journalists are prosecuted as a ratio of population. It indicates the level of impunity, or exemption from punishment, of the killers of journalists. A high ranking means a high level of impunity, and contributes to a country’s low press freedom ranking.

The 2009 massacre of 32 journalists who were among the 58 men and women killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on November 23, 2009, was a major factor for the rise of the country’s impunity level to third place, with only Iraq (first) and Somalia (second) ahead.

Press freedom watch groups have remarked on the uniqueness of the Philippine case. The lowest- ranked countries in the RSF Index are either dictatorships (174th placer Burma, for example) or at war (Sudan, 172nd ), although Afghanistan, which has been at war for decades, is ahead of the Philippines (147th). On the other hand, ranked second in the 2010 CPJ Impunity Index, Somalia is a failed state besieged by various warring groups. First placer Iraq has been at war since 2003.

At least officially, the Philippines is not at war, and is supposed to be a democracy, thus the puzzlement of press freedom watch groups, which have sent delegations to the Philippines to find out for themselves what’s wrong that can be fixed so the killings will stop.

A Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) delegation was in the Philippines in early 2009. A CPJ delegation visited the Philippines last August and met Philippine officials, and observed that because the killers of journalists have literally “gotten away with murder,” the justice system is itself on trial, with the Ampatuan town Massacre being a turning point in whether the “faltering” system can still be fixed.

The delegations have discovered that, again officially, there’s a commitment to finding the killers of journalists. It was true even of the Arroyo regime, despite such sour notes as its justice secretary’s telling the CPJ to “go jump in the lake” last April, 2010, when CPJ released its 2010 Impunity Index.

Arroyo justice secretary Raul Gonzalez’ jeer then that the Philippines shouldn’t be paying attention to what foreigners say about the country including the state of press freedom in it was in response to a tendency to make it seem that it’s for the sake of the country’s image that the campaign for justice for slain journalists is being waged.

That of course should not be the case. What the continuing killing of journalists (four were killed this year in connection with their work, with one occurring early July, when Benigno Aquino III had already taken office) is demonstrating is how weak Philippine democracy is on the one hand, and how powerful are local warlords and politicians, as well as the military and police personnel implicated in most of the killings.

The weakness is particularly concentrated in the justice system, which not only suffers from a shortage of prosecutors, but whose prosecutors are also burdened with hundreds of cases. At the local level, both judges and prosecutors are also subject to various pressures. At its most basic, the police responsibility of building cases is hampered by some policemen’s being themselves involved in the killings as well as by police incompetence, and the resulting reliance on the testimony of witnesses.

And yet what’s needed to stop the killing of journalists is a demonstration that the killers and masterminds will be punished. It’s a tall order, impunity being deeply rooted in the Philippine justice system, which allows not only the killers of journalists but hundreds of other murderers to go unpunished. But it’s either stop the killings or allow them to continue to the detriment of this country’s people and its already tattered democracy. Despite the admitted lapses and the unethical and unprofessional conduct of some journalists, a free press is a vital means of monitoring both the quality of life and of governance in any society including, perhaps especially, this one.

(BusinessWorld)

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