The Paris-based press freedom watch group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF–Reporters Without Borders) seemed perplexed last December, 2004. As the year ended with one more journalist in the Philippines shot dead, it said that, “for some still unclear reason,” more journalists seem likely to be killed in 2005.

RSF’s perplexity was understandable. Philippine democracy was supposedly restored in 1986, and the Philippine Constitution of 1987–one of the few in the world to do so–forbids the passage of any law abridging press freedom.

Those who feel they’ve been abused by the press and the media have recourse to a number of avenues for redress. The most widely circulated broadsheet has an in-house press ombudsman, or readers’ advocate. The association of publishers has a Press Council to which one can file complaints against the press. And there’s a libel law whose antecedents go back to the American colonial period, and which not only provides jail terms for offenders, but also allows claims for monetary damages.

Since 1986, however, some 60– or 50, it depends on who’s doing the counting–journalists have been murdered. What’s even more puzzling, given the country’s laws and its official status as a democracy, none of the murders have been solved, in the sense of the perpetrator’s being convicted and jailed. (The Philippine National Police claims that 14 of the cases have been solved. But that’s because it defines “solved” in the sense of its having identified a suspect or suspects, and not in that word’s logical, everyday meaning.)

To RSF’s puzzlement has been added horror over the Maundy Thursday killing of Marlene Garcia Esperat, a columnist of the Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat community newspaper Midland Review. Esperat, a former ombudsman of the Department of Agriculture office in her city, had resigned from government out of frustration over its failure to root out corruption.

RSF’s horror over the Esperat killing–and perhaps its even greater perplexity– has prompted it to announce that it will send a fact-finding team this April to the Philippines to look into the deaths of journalists in this beacon of Asian press freedom.

Although the Philippine press now needs all the help it can get, perhaps it shouldn’t bother. Any team it sends to the Philippines is likely to arrive at the same conclusions as a team the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) sent last January for the same purpose.

The IFJ delegation said that poor working conditions, including low and even non-existent wages, were contributing factors to the killings. Many journalists in the communities, said the IFJ-affiliated National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, are forced to work for political and other interests, which puts them in the line of fire of contending groups. What’s more, it’s every man and woman for him/herself for these journalists, since their employers do not provide any safety support.

The delegation suggested that news organizations should educate media readers, listeners and viewers about existing mechanisms for redress against media abuses. As is widely known, media practitioners in the communities, especially broadcasters, do tend to be abusive in their language and even disdainful of the facts. Media observers and critics, while condemning the killings, have suggested that media abuse of their subjects could be one of the factors for the killings.

These factors, however, are only secondary, the delegation suggested. What’s primary is a “culture of violence” that flourishes because it is tolerated by high government officials.

“When such a culture of violence is allowed to flourish at an official level, it is little wonder that aggrieved local strongmen or political figures turn to hit men to get even with the media,” said delegation head Gerard Noonan, a senior Australian journalist.

Although this statement was the apparent reason why President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo cancelled a meeting with the delegation, it was actually understated. Both IFJ and NUJP have repeatedly emphasized that the killings’ going unpunished since 1986 is what encourages further killings. This emphasis implies that there’s official tolerance of the culture of violence.

Quickly rejected by the Arroyo government, it’s a view that’s not exclusive to IFJ. The 2004 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on the Philippines, for example, says, though somewhat diplomatically, that “some elements” of the Philippine police and military “were responsible for arbitrary, unlawful, and, in some cases, extrajudicial killings; disappearances; torture; and arbitrary arrest and detention. The physical abuse of suspects and detainees remained a problem (in 2004), as did police, prosecutorial, and judicial corruption.”

Further, said the Report, “As in past years, the constitutionally mandated Commission on Human Rights (CHR) described the PNP as the worst abuser of human rights. Police and local government leaders at times appeared to sanction extrajudicial killings and vigilantism as expedients means of fighting crime and terrorism.” (italics supplied)

“Security forces,” the report continued, “sometimes resorted to the summary execution of suspects, or ‘salvaging.’ Police and military spokesmen at times explained these killings as the unavoidable results of shoot-outs with suspects or escapees. Statements by various local government officials have condoned extra-judicial killings as an acceptable means to fight crime. The CHR suspected PNP members in a majority of the human rights violations involving deaths that it investigated through June (2004).” (italics supplied).

Among the “local government officials” who, in word and deed, “have condoned extra-judicial killings,” for example, is a city mayor whose well-known extra-judicial efforts at ridding his city of alleged drug dealers earned him the post of presidential adviser on crime prevention.

IFJ’s argument makes sense. If the use of extra-judicial violence is tolerated, and even encouraged, in (supposedly) combating “crime and terrorism” as the US State Department Report puts it, it’s likely to spill over into all of society, and most especially among local tyrants and politicians, warlords, and criminal syndicates.

No one has to look too far for the primary reason why journalists are so easily killed. The reason is right before our eyes– in the culture of violence raging throughout this country from Taguig to Central Luzon to Davao, and whose main disciples and advocates are the very people and agencies that are supposed to protect the citizenry from harm.

(Manila Standard Today/

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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