The disposable journalist

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Laoag broadcaster Roger Mariano was on his way home Saturday night when he was apparently ambushed. Mariano was killed in a hail of bullets from M-16 rifles. He was the first journalist to be killed in Ilocos Norte, apparently for doing his job as a journalist. But Mariano is now also the 46th Filipino journalist murdered in the Philippines since 1986.

Since that critical year—during which, ironically, the institutions of liberal democracy including a free press were restored in the Philippines in the aftermath of People Power 1—an average of three journalists have been killed each year.

One of the worst years in this sorry list was 1986, when six were killed. But 2003 surpassed that record. Seven were killed then. This year, three have been killed so far. Legazpi City broadcaster Ruel Endrinal was killed last February 11, Cotrabato’s Ely Binoya last June 17, and Mariano only three days ago.

Everyone of those killed was a community journalist. No one has been prosecuted for their murders.

One of the exceptions could have been the case of Pagadian City’s print and broadcast journalist Edgar Damalerio, who was killed May 13, 2002, within spitting distance of the Pagadian City Hall and police headquarters. Witnesses identified a police officer as his probable assassin. Before being served an arrest warrant, however, policeman Guillermo Wapile escaped—or was allowed to escape—from the custody of his police collagues. He is still at large.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo offered in November 2003 a one million peso reward for the capture of the killers of journalists murdered in the last five years. There have been no takers.

The Philippine record of 46 deaths since 1986 is unsurpassed, except possibly in Colombia, where a ferocious combination of drug-cartel violence, civil war and military repression has claimed dozens of journalists’ lives. Both countries are now seen as among the worst places in the world to practice journalism.

The distinction of being the worst was Afghanistan’s in 2001, when nearly a dozen journalists were killed. Iraq, where 13 were killed in 2003, was—and still is—currently the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. But there’s a war in both places, and except for very rare instances in 2003, including one in which US troops shelled a Baghdad hotel where journalists were staying, journalists are as a rule not targeted for being journalists in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

In the Philippines they are. The Philippine situation is thus unique—certainly in Asia, and probably in the world. In Asia, the Philippine press has the distinction of being the only press whose freedom is constitutionally protected, and for that reason had been the envy of the region, in many countries of which there are such restrictions as licensing requirements, repressive press laws, national security acts, and other forms of government regulation.

But in those places in Asia—China, Malaysia and Singapore come to mind—journalists are not murdered almost routinely. They may be censored, harassed, sued and jailed, but seldom are they killed, and certainly not in the numbers that we have in the Philippines.

For what it says about the deterioration of press freedom, national and international press freedom watch groups have greeted the killings with alarm for years.

The alarm grew louder last year with the murder of seven journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Reporters sans Frontieres, and the Philippines’ own Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Philippine Press Institute and Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility declared the Philippine situation urgent and critical.

The National Union of Journalists, meeting in May in Manila, also focused on the killings, but noted as well other forms of harassment against journalists, among them the closing of radio stations, the manhandling of reporters in the provinces, as well as punitive libel suits against government critics.

Last June 18, twenty- three members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), meeting in Baku, Azerbajian, condemned the continuing killing of journalists in the Philippines, and called on the Philippine government to “exercise its political will by bringing the perpetrators to justice and declaring an end to the culture of impunity which has allowed these attacks to continue.”

Despite all this attention, however, only a handful of national journalists’ groups, and those in the communities where journalists have been killed, have condemned the killings. President Arroyo did offer the reward earlier mentioned, and former Interior and Local Governments Secretary Jose Lina and ranking police officers pledged in 2003 to do all they could to apprehend the killers of journalists. But not only is the Arroyo reward still unclaimed. There is no visible sign either that Lina’s and the PNP leaderships’ pledge is in any immediate danger of being implemented.

What to make of this situation—and the possibility that more journalists will be killed this year and the next? The one factor visibly missing in the Philippines is public indignation widespread and compelling enough to make it politically advantageous for the Philippine government to rigorously go after the killers. This absence is troubling, but not only because it indicates a lack of public understanding of the role of a free press in making better societies. It also indicates that journalists may not be, as a rule, regarded in this country with the respect and appreciation they believe to be due them.

A free press is of course indispensable to the making of democratic societies. By monitoring government performance and reporting this to the public, for example, a free press can encourage the honest and efficient governance countries like ours need to escape the pit of underdevelopment and poverty.

The Philippine press has done this in several notable instances, such as, for example, during the Estrada impeachment trial and other crises. But on a regular, sustained basis the Philippine press has tended to limit its government monitoring to the reporting and sensationalizing of scandals in reports that for lack of enough back-grounding very often confuse rather than enlighten.

Widespread corruption in the Philippine press, the commercial focus of the news media specially television news, and the misuse of media power for personal and familial ends have also made reporting more and more dependent on factors other than public interest. The result is an increasingly uninformed and misinformed public, that in many instances has tended to regard the press as a nuisance and even a hindrance to intelligent discourse.

The picture is even bleaker in the communities, where journalists are seldom in the public mind quite simply because they are not relevant to the concerns of residents. At best they are regarded with ambivalence. If the public notices them at all, they are accepted as part of the supposedly democratic landscape, and as serving some kind of vaguely understood function consisting mostly of attacking wrongdoing by government and other groups.

On the other hand, they are not regarded as indispensable in the lives of communities, among other reasons because too many report and comment without confirming the facts first, abuse the freedom the Constitution guarantees them, and/or are known to be in the payrolls of local interests.

In this situation, the only true guarantor of the lives and freedom of journalists, the public, is not likely to feel very strongly about the killing of people whose contributions to its well-being are at best unclear.

The June 18 IFEX statement thus alludes to the need for journalists in the Philippines to deserve the public’s protection. “We urge journalists across the Philippines,” the statement said, “to be vigilant and to close ranks to protect themselves against (attacks and assassinations) by arming themselves with the truth and a high level of professionalism in carrying out their work.” Unless they are so armed, and thus indispensable to their communities, journalists will continue to be killed in this country, with very few caring enough to want the killings to stop.

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