Unsafe for journalists

Standard

The dismissal from the service of a policeman accused of killing a Mindanao journalist, and of his former superior, would be encouraging if it had been the result of normal institutional processes in this country—processes that in other countries take place as a matter of course.

The dismissals of the two persons that the National Police chief Hermogenes Ebdane described in his order as “an insult” to the police, and as “unprofessional,” respectively, should have proceeded as part of the normal chain of events, as should have the workings of the justice system.

However, not due course but the prodding of media organizations apparently led to the dismissals, which occurred more than six months after the policeman was identified by witnesses as the killer, and his superior apparently tried to protect him. The court cases against the former, on the other hand, have inched forward only as a result of those organizations’ efforts.

PO1 Guillermo Wapile and former Pagadian City police chief Asuri Hawani, were dismissed only after media organizations in Manila complained directly to the PNP and the Department of the Interior and Local Government over the lack of progress in the investigation into the killing of the radio commentator and community newspaper editor Edgar Damalerio.

A single bullet, fired from the gun of a man riding tandem on the back of a motorcycle, killed Damalerio instantly in the early evening of May 13, 2002. The killing occurred on a major city street, across Pagadian City police headquarters and not far from city hall.

Two friends riding with Damalerio in his jeep said they clearly saw who the killer was when he fired the fatal shot. To make sure Damalerio was dead, the shooter, now alone on the motorcycle, circled the block after shooting him. He did not even bother to cover his face, in apparent confidence that he would get away with it.

If the killer was indeed who the witnesses say he was, he had reason to think so. Both the NBI and the two witnesses say the killer was a police officer with a long record of criminal complaints against him. Despite these complaints he remained in the police force, and even after being identified by the witnesses, spent only a few days in detention, eventually being released to roam the town—and, said Damalerio’s wife, to intimidate Damalerio’s family and the witnesses to the crime.

Everything smelled of a police cover-up from the beginning. Immediately after the crime, a team of policemen removed Damalerio’s body, impounded his jeep and studiously cleaned the scene, in a manner reminiscent of previous killings in other Philippine towns in which local officials and the police are implicated: i.e., with the apparent intention to get rid of any physical evidence.

PO1 Wapile was detained only on the recommendation of the NBI. He was released a few days later, since the police filed no charges against him. Instead, Wapile’s superiors claimed that a certain Ronnie Kilme did the deed.

But this was just obstruction, said the NBI’s lead investigator.

“The police [were] only trying to complicate the case,” the NBI’s Friolo Icao told Linn Neumann, Asia consultant of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

A former correspondent covering the Philippines, Neumann traveled from his Bangkok office to the Philippines in September 2002 to look into the Damalerio case, and subsequently wrote a report on the assassination of Filipino journalists (Neumann’s “Philippines: Elusive Justice,” which was earlier published in the CPJ publication Dangerous Assignments, can be accessed at the CPJ website HYPERLINK, http://www.cpj.org).

Returning to Manila after his fact-finding mission in Pagadian City, Neumann contacted the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which for years had been trying to call attention to the continued killing of journalists.

Perhaps because the killings had been happening in the community press, the Manila press had appeared unperturbed by them. On January 7, however, CMFR, PCIJ, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), and the Center for Community Journalism and Development CCJD), with Neumann attending, held a dialogue with police officials to urge them to speed up the Damalerio investigation.

As per CPJ’s count, Damalerio was the 38th journalist killed in the Philippines since 1986, when the authoritarian Marcos regime was overthrown. That event ushered in a 16-year period in which more journalists were eventually killed than during the preceding 14 years of authoritarian rule.

Damalerio’s assassination was followed by a 39th last year. San Pablo City’s Sonny Alcantara, who was editor of a local newspaper, was shot dead in broad daylight on August 22.

No one can escape the irony inherent in these killings. They have taken place in a country where press freedom enjoys constitutional protection, where democracy is said to have been restored, where the press (at least the Manila part of it) is very often itself an unchecked power. This is also a country where the word “justice” and the phrase “the rule of law” falls from the lips of every government functionary and politician at the least provocation.

Despite the prominence of that buzz phrase in political and government discourse, only one person has ever been tried—and that was before 1972—for the killing of a journalist in the last 30 years. No one has ever been tried for the killing of any journalist in the post-Marcos era.

This record—which CPJ says is unequalled anywhere else in the world—sends a clear message to anyone who resents the way he or she has been treated by the media. It is that journalists can be killed with impunity by killers under the protection of local officials and, in many cases, the police.

The continuing killing of journalists—at an average of three a year since 1986—is apparently the result of the absence of the rule of law as well as the incapacity of the justice system in the communities to stand up to local officials.

Every incident in which wrongdoers escape retribution, and not only in the case of journalists’ being assassinated, suggests that it’s exactly the unrestrained power of local officials and their lackeys in the police that mocks the law and subverts the justice system.

Local prosecutors in Pagadian City, for example, admitted to CPJ that they themselves were in fear of their lives because of the closeness to local officials of the person they’re supposed to prosecute.

The impunity that journalists’ killers enjoy is in many ways one more sign of the weakness of the Philippine State. That weakness fundamentally derives from its lack of control over, and subsequent inability to command, local organs of state power. Instead these—rovincial and city governments, for example—often act autonomously and in furtherance of their interests.

At the community level, corruption and other wrongdoing in government agencies and by officials are practically unchecked except by the efforts of courageous journalists.

Ironically, it is the unchecked power and corruption of local tyrants and their collaborators that in most cases the assassinated journalists were trying to expose.

In Pagadian City, for example, both journalists as well as NGO activists say anomalies abound unchecked, with only the journalists standing between the people and bad, even tyrannical, governance.

CPJ quotes the head of a local electric cooperative, who said Damalerio was exposing what was going on.

But there are so many killings in the City, said Decca Judilla. “They are done very professionally and they never find the real culprits. Freedom of expression is really at risk here. It is really not safe for the journalists.”

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, January 18, 2002)

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