IMPUNITY — OR exemption from punishment — has been correctly called a culture, a way of doing things to which a particular community has become accustomed. It is almost inevitably mentioned as the primary reason why journalists and political activists continue to be killed in the Philippines, where a culture of impunity has indeed taken root. But it also applies with equal validity to the killing of nearly everyone else, especially the poor and powerless. Few murders in this country are ever really solved, with the perpetrators and masterminds being arrested, tried and punished.

Contrary to the common perception that only the wealthy and powerful literally get away with murder, it also happens even to the poorest folk. If the wealthy and well-connected can evade punishment by hiring crafty lawyers, and bribing policemen, prosecutors and judges, those who are otherwise, if they’re lucky enough, can escape the law by simply disappearing in the vast countryside that surrounds the cities, or in the anonymous warrens and labyrinthine slums the poorest call home. Police inefficiency and reluctance to hunt down killers, if the victims are “not important” and won’t be missed except by their closest kin, does the rest.

But what makes the killing of political activists different from common murders is that it has been, for a very long time, part of the government’s anti-insurgency policy, which makes no distinction between the armed combatants of the New People’s Army, and the members of legal organizations with aims similar to those of the Communist Party of the Philippines which commands the NPA.

The policy has resulted in the killing of over a thousand men and women from various sectors: students and teachers, farmers and workers, progressive local officials and leaders of non-governmental organizations, priests and pastors, lawyers and judges. The policy has not only cost the country the lives of citizens that in other societies would be cherished for the consistency and courage of their convictions. It has also further enshrined the culture of impunity that fuels the violence and lawlessness rampant throughout Philippine society.

It was only a matter of time before the policy was equally applied to journalists by its evil architects and the mindless brutes that implement it. While the killing of journalists has primarily been due to the weaknesses of the justice system — among them police inefficiency and collusion with the killers, the shortage in, and indifference of local prosecutors — it had not been government orchestrated.

But in the latter years of the Arroyo government, starting with the police/military labeling of some journalists’ groups (the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines) as “enemies of the state” together with a long list of legal organizations whose leaders and members were already being regularly assassinated. This was followed by the inclusion of critical local journalists in the dreaded military orders of battle, which identify those who can be legitimately targeted for elimination. The Arroyo regime ended in the nick of time: there was every indication that like the assassination of political activists, the killing of journalists was about to be state policy.

Many assume that all these have passed with the coming to power of a new administration, which among other initiatives has emphasized that not only are state-sponsored extrajudicial killings NOT among its policies, it also expects the military to respect human rights and international law in the course of its anti-insurgency campaign.

As things are turning out, however, the exit of the Arroyo clique has not stopped the attacks on, and the killing of journalists and political activists. One free lance journalist was killed in the first week of the Aquino III government, and a second, who survived, was ambushed only this week. But three political activists, one a member of Bayan Muna, another a member of a farmers’ group and a third a teacher who was a member of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, were killed within a week.

Justice Secretary Leila De Lima may have a point in suspecting that the killings are being committed by military partisans of the previous regime to embarrass the Aquino III government. Among the consequences of the state policy of encouraging EJKs, which among others included promoting and publicly applauding the work of some of the most egregious human rights violators in its brutal history, is the strengthening of the military as a power unto itself, independent and contemptuous of, though paying lip service to, civilian authority.

This monster was not the creation of the Arroyo regime alone. The emergence of the military as a decisive factor in Philippine politics, policy-making, and governance was inevitable during the martial law period. The governments that followed that of Marcos either did not have the capacity to curb military power, had no desire to do so, or were not even familiar with it.

The Arroyo regime, however, made the military a co-conspirator in its efforts to remain in power, rewarded retired officers with appointments in lucrative government positions more than Fidel Ramos ever did, and encouraged the human rights violations to which it has been accustomed since Marcos. But it had a cost. Among the Arroyo regime’s most putrid legacies is the further weakening of the central government’s capacity to control the military, especially at the local level.

This makes it likely that the same insane policies of extrajudicial killings of the Arroyo regime are still in place within the military, given its primary article of faith: the use of any means including the most heinous to put an end to any social movement that threatens its own as well as its patrons’ interests. The culture of impunity is firmly rooted in that evil tradition, as it has been further strengthened by the failure of a succession of governments to root it out, and, in the case of the Arroyo regime, to even nurture it.


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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