President Benigno Simeon Aquino III is leaving for several European countries this Sunday, September 13, during which he’s expected to enhance those countries’ support for the Philippine position in its dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea. Having just submitted to Congress the draft of the long-awaited Bangsamoro Basic Law, Mr. Aquino is also likely to brag before the leaders of Spain, Germany, France, and Belgium how he has made peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
What he’s not likely to brag about, or even to mention at all, but which will inevitably be raised by the foreign journalists who will cover his visit, are the killing of journalists in the Philippines and the sorry human rights record of his administration.
International human rights, journalists’ and free expression groups, among them Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Council, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontieres, and the International Federation of Journalists have noted with alarm how the killing of journalists has continued and is steadily rising in number over the last four years, together with a spike in such human rights violations as torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances.
CPJ’s Impunity Index—which lists countries with the worst records of failure in punishing the killers of journalists—ranks the Philipines third worldwide after Iraq and Somalia. Only last July, the International Federation of Journalists, reacting to a failed attempt on the life of a Pangasinan broadcaster, urged Mr. Aquino to do something about the harassment and killing of journalists. The attack on the broadcaster was the fifth this year; four other journalists had been killed earlier.
Twenty-five (25) journalists have in fact been killed for their work since Mr. Aquino came to the Presidency in 2010, while over 66 cases of threats, libel suits and other harassments as well as physical assaults against journalists have been recorded for 2013 alone. In most of the 25 cases of journalists killed since 2010, the failure of police investigators to identify or arrest suspects has made the punishment of the killers nearly impossible.
It’s a record about which Mr. Aquino has no bragging rights. But apparently so unaware has he been of international concern over the killings that he was visibly caught off guard when, in a Malacanang press conference with US President Barack Obama during the latter’s visit last April, a Fox News reporter asked him about the country’s dismal record of prosecuting and punishing the killers of journalists.
Mr. Aquino eventually found the words to say that his administration is committed to stopping the killings. But his spokespersons later dragged out the usual excuse of blaming his predecessor—they said it’s because of the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre during which 32 journalists were killed—as the reason for the country’s failure to punish most of the killers of journalists and the masterminds behind them.
Mr. Aquino has since then taken on a new tack by declaring that most of the journalists killed were not killed for their work as journalists but for other reasons, apparently on the say-so of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
This is the same PNP, some elements of which have been implicated not only in such crimes as kidnapping, extortion, drug-dealing, and murder, but also in the killing of journalists—and this is the same PNP that by reducing the number of journalists killed, claims that most of the killings have been solved.
The PNP has repeatedly claimed that not only were many of the individuals included by media advocacy and journalists’ groups in their lists of slain journalists and media workers not killed for their work; most were not even journalists to begin with.
It’s a convenient excuse for continuing to do what it has been doing—or more accurately, what it hasn’t been doing, which is precisely that of rapidly investigating the killings, building the cases against the suspected perpetrators, and helping bring them to court.
The number of cases the PNP claims have been solved since 2001—eight—is 20 percent of the 40 cases it says are the only ones that qualify as cases of journalists killed. The reality is that 108 journalists and media workers have been killed for their work since that year, while out of over 200 cases since 1986, only in nine cases have there been convictions.
For some strange reason, the PNP keeps count only from 2001 when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power. The work-related killing of journalists and media workers in the Philippines did not begin only in 2001, having begun to increase in 1986. A key issue is of course which of the killings were work-related. The PNP claim conflicts with the lists of journalists and media workers killed maintained by Philippine journalists’ and media advocacy groups, as well as by the international press freedom watch groups.
These groups all agree that the number of journalists killed in the Philippines since 1986 is at least 200. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility lists a total of 217 killings since 1986, of which only 72 were due to personal and other disputes. The PNP—and as a consequence, President Aquino—rejects those figures. Mr. Aquino declared last August 29 that, most of the killings not being work related, only prudence and concern for the victims’ families has prevented his administration from revealing the real reasons, which he implied could embarrass the survivors. It’s a flimsy, though creative, excuse to justify the administration’s impunity record.
Mr. Aquino also defined media killings during the same press briefing last August 29, as “(those killings carried out by) agents of the State (engaged in) ‘suppressing the search for the truth.’” No journalists’ and media advocacy group has ever claimed that the killings were being carried out solely by “agents of the State,” much less that it is State policy to eliminate journalists—only that the government has been mostly indifferent to the killings. But if the Aquino administration and the PNP define media killings as those carried out by agents of the State, and by implication in furtherance of State policy, then the number of such killings would indeed fall—albeit not too significantly, given the involvement in many of the killings of police and military personnel as well as local officials.
Mr. Aquino has declared that his administration is committed to stopping the killings. Punishing the killers and the masterminds behind them is the necessary condition for accomplishing that task, which in turn must be based on an accurate appreciation of the extent of the problem.
Minimizing the problem by claiming that it isn’t as bad as it has been made out to be won’t make it go away, and could even make it worse. In fact Mr. Aquino can expect the problem to hound him during his entire European sojourn, no matter how much he may be focused on the country’s dispute with China, and on bragging about the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law.
First published in BusinessWorld.