Anti-impunity pins (CMFR)

In 2015 the Philippines was number four in the Committee to Protect Journalists’(CPJ) Impunity Index, after Somalia, Iraq and Syria. The Index lists those countries where the killers of journalists are seldom, if ever, punished, with many literally getting away with murder. The first three countries are failed states, which raises the question of why the Philippines should be in their company, but the numbers speak for themselves. Only in 11cases out of 152 journalists’ murders since 1986 have the killers of journalists and media workers been prosecuted, and very rarely have masterminds been tried.

“Only” (one killing is one too many) two journalists were killed for their work early this year during the final months of the Benigno Aquino III administration. The killings brought to 152 the number of journalists killed for their work in the Philippines since 1986. Seven were killed in 2015, while an average of five each year were murdered from 2010 to 2016 during the Aquino watch.

It’s too early to tell if it will hold, but no journalist has so far been killed for his work in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in July this year, although an attempt was made on the life of a broadcaster in that month. The New York-based CPJ urged President Duterte to have that attempt investigated, but there is no indication that the Philippine National Police or any other law enforcement agency has been doing anything about it.

CPJ was among the international press freedom watch groups that expressed fears that Duterte was encouraging the killing of journalists when the then presumptive president declared in the latter part of May this year that journalists were being killed in the Philippines because they were corrupt, while the Paris-based group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF- Reporters Without Borders) urged a boycott of his press conferences for the same reason.

Most Filipinos who read newspapers, watch television, or listen to the radio have since known what followed: Duterte’s wolf whistle when a female reporter asked him a question, his going ballistic when he was asked about the state of his health, his declaration that he would himself boycott privately-owned media and would henceforth course his press conferences only through State media, and his calling off the boycott in deeds if not in words (he didn’t seem to mind privately-owned media’s eventually covering his press conferences and public engagements). Most observers, however, continued to describe the relationship between the media and Duterte as problematic, “rocky” being their favorite word to describe it.

But oddly enough for someone most media people think isn’t exactly ecstatic over how they’re doing their jobs,Duterte’s first administrative order creates a “presidential task force on violations of the right to life, liberty and security of the members of the media.”

AO number 1 starts with no less than 15 “whereases,” among them five citations from the Constitution, three from the United Nations, and one from Human Rights Watch to declare “as a matter of policy” that violence against journalists, which “creates an impression (sic) of a culture of impunity,” “must stop, and towards this end, commits to establish a government-wide program of action (in which) the whole system of the bureaucracy is involved in the efficient, coherent, and comprehensive resolution of unsolved cases of violence in the form of killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty and security of… the members of the press.”

The task force, which would “have the mandate of ensuring a safe environment for Media Workers,” is composed of the Secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Govenrment (DILG), the Secretary of the Department of National Defense (DND), the Solicitor General, the Executive Director of the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC), the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Director General of the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The AO also names as “observers and resource persons” in this high-powered company the presidents or chairs of the National Press Club, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the Publishers Association of the Philippines, and the Philippine Press Institute.

Past administrations, such as those of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, also created task forces to address the killing of journalists and media workers, but did not succeed in stopping or even reducing the number of killings. The Aquino administration record of 31 journalists killed over a six-year period would have approached that of Macapagal-Arroyo had not 32 journalists and media workers been killed in one incident, the Ampatuan Massacre of 58 men and women, on November 23, 2009, or a few months before Arroyo’s nine-year term ended.

The task forces Arroyo and Aquino created failed for their (supposedly) being focused only on investigating every new case of a journalist’s being killed, without doing anything to assure the resolution of past cases. The culture of impunity, or the killers’ and wrongdoers’ exemption from punishment due to the weaknesses of the justice system, thrives precisely because the killers go unpunished.

It has long been obvious that to prevent further killings, what is needed is to punish the masterminds and perpetrators of both recent as well as past murders. By giving the task force the responsibilities of doing an inventory of unsolved cases, cases under investigation, cases under preliminary investigation, cases under trial and cases under appeal, and investigating such cases, the Duterte AO is therefore on the right track with its apparent emphasis on solving such cases by punishing the masterminds and perpetrators of the killings.

Among other mandates, the AO also authorizes the task force to form teams of investigators to look into pending cases whether they’re in the courts or not, as well as to receive and act on complaints of violence against journalists and media workers.

Being a body composed of the most responsible officials in both the civilian and military bureaucracy, the task force should also have no problem marshaling government resources in investigating and helping punish wrong doers. While media people are not among the task force members, their being named resource persons and observers would also help direct the investigation towards addressing impunity issues.

However, there is one item the task force can immediately address: the need to cause the arrest and trial of the suspected masterminds, who happen to be government functionaries, in the killing of Sultan Kudarat journalist Marlene Esperat. Those suspects have eluded arrest despite the issuance of warrants of arrest and have even returned to their places of work in the government bureaucracy.

Although the suspected brains in the killing of Palawan’s Gerry Ortega are on trial, other suspected masterminds have not even been apprehended. The arrest of the killers as well as alleged brains behind the Esperat and other killings would send a clear message that the killers of journalists will not go unpunished, and help begin the process of dismantling the culture of impunity.

It would also demonstrate that the Duterte task force is serious in its intent to put a stop to the killing of journalists and is in that sense unlike the ineffectual task forces created by past administrations. What’s even more important is that it would also disabuse the minds of would-be killers of journalists that the Duterte administration is on their side.

First published on BusinessWorld. Image from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility website.

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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