The media under siege

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Something is terribly wrong in the Philippine media. Something has been terribly wrong in the media despite the “restoration of democracy” in 1986. But 2003 is turning into their worst year in the nearly two decades since.

It’s not just the inaccurate and biased reports, the articles attributed to “reliable” sources, the out-of-context stories, the sensationalism and scandal-mongering, or even the open secret that’s media corruption. These problems are real and urgent, but have resisted solution. They are rooted in the ownership system, inadequate or even non-existent training, the commercial and political interests that control the media, and a media culture that while critical of others tends to turn a blind eye on practitioners’ own wrong-doing

These ethical and professional problems in the media, plus a host of others, are by themselves bad enough because they impede the flow of the information free men and women need to make decisions in a democratic setting. But what’s even worse is that the freedom the press claims to have recovered in 1986 is under direct and overt assault, and in a way far more damaging than being berated for “abetting rebellion” by the President of the Republic.

Since 1986, 41 journalists have been killed while on duty in the Philippines, all of them from the communities. In the first few years after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship the killings, most of them perpetrated by local warlords and their henchmen, were dismissed as part of the hang-over of martial law, and part of the necessary pains of the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Within a few years, however, specifically by 1991, when the number of journalists killed in the Philippines had risen to nearly two dozen, it had become evident that the number of deaths was beginning to surpass those during the martial law period, prompting the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to describe the Philippines then as the world’s most dangerous place for journalists.

Since 1986 an average of three journalists have been killed in the Philippines. This year, however, six have so far been killed, doubling the average and raising the number killed in the line of duty from 36 to 42.

The most recent death occurred only a few days ago. In the evening of September 6, unidentified motorcycle-riding men shot and killed Juan “Jun” Pala while he was walking with two companions on his way home from a friend’s house in Davao City.

The controversial Pala, host of a radio show called “Isumbong mo kay Pala (Tell Pala),” had survived two earlier assassination attempts, one last year, and the second one only last April 29. Pala was once known as the spokesman of the vigilante group Alsa Masa, but as a broadcaster has been focusing on criticizing local officials, especially Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whom last April Pala blamed for the failed attempt on his life.

Only last month, on August 20, Rico Ramirez, a radio reporter in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur, had been shot and killed by unknown assailants. His death had followed that of Noel Villarante, also a radio broadcaster and print columnist, only the day before in Santa Cruz, Laguna.

Bonifacio Gregorio of Tarlac City, Tarlac, was killed July 8 this year; Apolinario Pobeda of Lucena City, Quezon last May 17; and John Belen Villanueva Jr., of Legazpi City, Albay last April 28. All were either radio broadcasters or were in both print and radio, suggesting that it was for their radio commentaries — radio has the widest reach of all the media in the Philippines– that they had been targeted.

Ironically, the increase in the number of journalists killed this year compared to last year’s — when, in keeping with the average, three were killed in connection with their work as journalists — followed an alarm raised by several Philippine press freedom groups over the continuing assassination of journalists.

This alarm coincided with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ expression of grave concern in late 2001 over the situation in the Philippines, and was followed in January this year by the Philippines’ being listed as 86th — behind such other Southeast Asian countries as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia — in the Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) which rates countries according to their level of press freedom compliance.

Last year the Philippine groups — among them the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) — and several individuals formed the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists.

FFFJ initiated last January a dialogue with Interior and Local Governments Secretary Jose Lina and Philippine National Police officials to call for police action on recent as well as past killings, and specifically for the apprehension of the principal suspect in the killing of Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur’s Edgar Damalerio, also a broadcast and print journalist, who had been similarly shot to death.

Unlike in almost all of the past cases, at least two witnesses had identified one of the killers of Damalerio as a policeman in active duty. The suspect, however, managed to elude arrest early this year by disappearing from the police camp where he was supposed to be in the custody of his superiors.

The dialogue with Secretary Lina and the police resulted in a promise for the speedy investigation of the case and the apprehension of the principal suspect. The suspect, however, is still at large, and is in fact the subject of a “countdown for justice” in several newspapers, wherein his photograph is featured together with a report updated daily on the number of days he has remained at large despite a warrant of arrest issued against him.

The primary reason journalists are still murdered in the Philippines, by common agreement among international and Philippine press freedom groups, is impunity, which refers to the failure to prosecute and to punish those responsible for the murders. This is as true in the Philippines as in those other parts of the world — in Colombia, for example, where the drug problem has led to the killing of journalists on a scale similar to the Philippines — where the killing is continuing.

Not a single case of the 42 cases in the Philippines has been solved. No one has been arrested for any of those offenses except the occasional fall guy. No one has been prosecuted, and no one has been punished.

While this outstanding fact undoubtedly encourages those who want to retaliate against journalists for some reason or another, the killings are also indicative of the generally low levels of security available to everyone and not only to journalists in the Philippines specially in the countryside, where police and military officials are often in collusion with the local officials and criminal syndicates that journalists frequently target.

It is also true that, as some journalists’ groups like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have argued, the unsolved ambushes on, and murders of other citizens specially of activists and members of advocacy groups, the impunity with which security forces arrest and torture crime suspects and sympathizers of the Moro and communist insurgencies, have also encouraged the killers of journalists, which over the years have discovered that journalists do not have any special powers that could enable them to gain redress.

The killing of journalists in the Philippines is not only a serious matter that requires the attention of journalists and their organizations. It is also a symptom of a deeper problem of governance rooted in the failure of the justice system, starting with the police and security forces, to truly protect — and on the contrary even to attack — the very citizens whose rights and lives it is supposed to defend. Even more fundamentally do the killings put in serious question Philippine claims to democracy, because they target a fundamental right, the right to a free press, without which no society and no government can claim to be democratic.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 10, 2003)

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