Tattered democracy

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THE PHILIPPINE ranking fell from 122nd in 2009 to 156th in the Paris-based Reporters San Frontieres’ (RSF- Reporters Without Borders) 2010 Press Freedom Index released on October 20.

The 2010 Index covers the period September 1, 2009 to September 1, 2010. The Philippine ranking had been rising in earlier RSF Indexes, despite the continuing killing of journalists in the country, and its portrayal in 2003 as “the most murderous place in the world for journalists.”

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Impunity’s roots

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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.

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Aquino against impunity

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THE incoming government of Benigno Aquino III is being greeted with a level of optimism that includes the hope that it will seriously address Philippine poverty by, among other policy options, putting in place an authentic land reform program to abolish the archaic land tenancy system. But its coming to power in the wake of the disastrous watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also presents it with the opportunity to address, mitigate, and possibly end the culture of impunity.

“Impunity” refers to the exemption from punishment of the killers of journalists and media workers, human rights and political activists, lawyers, even local officials and judges. A weak justice system is often blamed for impunity. At the community level that weakness is manifest in the collusion between hired killers, local officials, and police and military officers, or even in the killers themselves’ being police and military personnel, or assassins in the pay of local officials.

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