A Union Against Impunity

Banners hung around the site where 17 members of the RMN Davao Employees Union organised a 41-day strike, outside their station in Davao city, in protest against an alleged failure by the management to honor terms under their collective agreement.Banners hung around the site where 17 members of the RMN Davao Employees Union organised a 41-day strike, outside their station in Davao city, in protest against an alleged failure by the management to honor terms under their collective agreement.
Banners hung around the site where 17 members of the RMN Davao Employees Union organised a 41-day strike, outside their station in Davao city, in protest against an alleged failure by the management to honor terms under their collective agreement.

MANILA – SINCE 1986, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has been a vocal advocate of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press in a country that is now ranked worldwide as the third most dangerous for working journalists.

But 28 years since its formation and registering some 1,500 individual members across 64 provinces, the time has come for NUJP to embark on what one of its officials calls a “journey of transformation”.

“We love freedom so much,” says NUJP Secretary General Rupert Mangilit, who looks like he may not be that much older than his organisation. “It is the political situation over the decades that has made us hold our freedoms dearly.”

“But at the same time,” he says,  “we have to admit that because we are too engrossed with fighting for our freedoms, we somehow leave some issues behind. The biggest of those issues is our economic state as a journalist.”

[See sidebar story: In Defence of Journalists]

Already at the forefront with its various advocacy and assistance programmes to end impunity, the NUJP is working towards returning to its roots and seeking to be legally recognised as a trade union. The end goal: To secure better wages and more secure working conditions for Filipino journalists.

The move, once implemented, could potentially make NUJP a leader among journalist unions in the region that officially came together as the South East Asian Journalist Unions (SEAJU) through signing of the Phnom Penh Declaration on 29 June 2013.  More than a year later, SEAJU would hold its first meeting in Melaka, Malaysia.

Affiliated with the International Federation of Journalists, SEAJU has representations from six member countries, including the Philippines.

Through its reputation built over the years and existing rapport with media organisations, NUJP’s cooperation with other unions across the region will further amplify its voice in the Philippines, with support from member countries — Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Timor Leste — each with experience in dealing with varying challenges in the same fight against impunity.

But official recognition as a trade union could also become one of NUJP’s means to protect its members from abuse, financial and physical alike. Indeed, it may yet turn out to be a vital part of the organisation’s campaign to keep its members from ending up dead because of their work.

171 and counting

By NUJP’s own count, the number of work-related media deaths in the Philippines since 1986 is currently 171. This has made the country, despite having an unfettered media, rank a dismal 149 out of 180 nations in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Within Southeast Asia, only Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam fare worse than the Philippines in the Index. Malaysia, where draconian laws and politically linked media ownership have essentially silenced its mainstream press, even bests the Philippines with a rank of 147.

Mangilit believes that there is a direct correlation between providing journalists with better financial security, upholding freedom of the press, and ultimately reducing their risk of being victims of impunity.  This, he argues, is a challenge that can only be overcome once NUJP is transformed into a trade union with the mandate to negotiate a collective agreement that does not only set a standard for wages and monetary benefits, but also other forms of non-monetary safeguards.

“Organising a trade union can help uplift the working conditions of journalists and professionalize the practice by providing the space and opportunity for journalists to claim and assert their rights collectively,” allows Red Batario, executive director of the Manila-based Centre for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD).

“This could, in theory at least, result in a public that understands better the role of media in a democracy and respects the practice because this is upheld against high standards,” he adds.  “Having the public or citizens on the side of the media and journalists is also a means of protection and could, to some extent, address impunity issues because people would be demanding swifter resolution or prosecution of cases involving the killing of journalists, for example.”

Accentuating the negative

As it is, many journalists in the Philippines feel they receive little respect or are not seen by the public in the best light. Put another way, there seems to be a nagging perception that members of the Philippine media are biased, if not corrupt. In fact, a staff member of one of the better regarded media institutions in Manila recalls being asked for the address of her organisation, which was then followed by a query on how much money her group would want in return for looking at the material to be sent.

No less than President Benigno Aquino III has also taken Manila journalists to task, accusing them on separate occasions of being unfair, inaccurate, and too negative. But media analyst Luis V. Teodoro of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) says that based on his group’s media-monitoring activities, most Manila-based media “have been fair – sometimes more than fair. They go out of their way to report what he (Aquino) said and so on and so forth.”

Unfortunately, he says, accusations levelled against the local media in the provinces are more on the mark. According to Teodoro, when a mayor of a town or city outside of Manila accuses a journalist of being partial to his rival, chances are the accusation is true because “that is the nature of local politics”.

“Some journalists are actually hired by the politicians who will say, ‘You run this paper for me!’” says Teodoro. “Or if he is already in a newspaper, he is paid regularly (by a politician). So the accusation that ‘this person is against me because he is in the pay of my rival’ is in many cases true.”

News for sale

“During the election season is when you will see some of the worst of media corruption,” says the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Ryan Rosauro, who is based in Davao City, some 1,500 kms south of Manila. “Candidates will always bribe media to give them good press. It can go so far as a vice-presidential candidate giving 20,000 pesos (around 444 U.S. dollars) each to three bigshot broadcasters.”

“Bribes can also be given in the form of revenue,” says Rosauro, who clarifies that there are also journalists who solicit bribes. “’You interview me for five minutes, I will talk on these issues. You ask me these questions and I will give your station revenue’.”

“How does bribery link to impunity? Those bribing you (journalists) are corrupting you and they think they have a licence to do anything to you, including to kill (you),” he says.

The more usual scenario, though, is when a journalist has been “talking in favour of this politician and attacking his rival,” says Teodoro. “But the (rival) politician says, ‘Okay, you now stop doing this or something will happen to you.’ That is where the killings now come in.”

Teodoro says if the journalist “doesn’t stop, then maybe he gets shot and killed. And maybe the killer is a policeman. So what happens is that nothing happens during the investigation and that is where impunity comes in.”

Mangilit meanwhile notes that there are also those among the Manila-based media who are “susceptible to corruption – and corruption in the mainstream media can be more complex than in the province”.

“First,” he says, “it definitely involves more money. Second, the officials here are more powerful and once you are beholden to these people, your chances of (you becoming) dependent or being attacked will be bigger.”

Dedication amid danger

Yet for sure, it would be grossly inaccurate to say that all of the journalists who have been killed in the Philippines were corrupt. Comments Batario: “Maybe some journalists were killed because of the way they are practising their jobs.  But there were others who died because of their stories were critical of the authorities.”

Obviously, too, there are still many true-blue media professionals in the provinces, several of whom remain dedicated to journalism despite their constant exposure to danger. NDBC news and current affairs head Malu Cadelina Manar, who now holds office inside a Roman Catholic church in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, says, “If you (are fearful), then stop becoming a journalist. Do not be afraid because the truth will set you free.”

Manar is not originally from Kidapawan. For more than 30 years, she had lived and worked in Cotabato City, some 120 kms away. But in 2004, she was forced to move, along with her family, after the death threats that her work as a journalist attracted worsened.

“They accused me of siding with a politician,” she says at an interview in her Barbie-pink workplace.  “No, that is not true. I was siding for the truth. Nobody was paying me to write these stories. I write because I saw it with my own eyes.”

The prevailing impression the press has on the public, however, is a negative one, which does not help elicit sympathy for a member of the media who has become an assassin’s target. More often than not, therefore, a murdered journalist is only fleetingly mourned, if at all. It would be no surprise if such an attitude were twisted by the more cynical as tacit approval of even the most heinous crime against the press.

Cleaning up the media

Ideally, then, a trade union could improve the image of the press even as it cleanses media ranks of those who are, Teodoro says, “desperate and ignorant”. For one, a union could impose uniform standards that need to be met by anyone wanting to become a member. Among these could be a set of criteria against which work by a union member can be judged, thereby helping distinguish legitimate journalists from those who, say, set up papers or buy airtime from radio or TV stations and then tailor their “reports” and commentaries according to a client’s demands.

For another, a trade union would be able to fight for standardised pay – something that is sorely lacking in the Philippine media, especially among those in the provinces. The argument is that by receiving regular and reasonable pay, journalists would feel more financially stable and thus less prone to corruption. Indeed, referring to members of the press who indulge in questionable practices, Teodoro says, “Many of them received very low pay, no benefits and some are not even paid. So if you are in that position, what happens? Most of them turn to corruption.”

Mangilit also points out, “In Manila, there are more independent journalists because some of them have better working conditions.  (And) some are trained to put ethical practices first before anything else.”

Even an entry-level journalist in Manila can expect to earn just right above the minimum wage, says Mangilit, who used to contribute to a national newspaper before working fulltime for NUJP.

Philippine government data show that the monthly minimum wage in Manila is equivalent to 285.55 to 310.18 U.S. dollars. Across the country’s 17 regions, the monthly minimum wage ranges from 173.73 to 241.29 U.S. dollars.

But Mangilit says that in many parts of the Philippines, local correspondents are sometimes paid based on the number of words or column inches they crank out while having little or no other benefit. Many of them could also be working for media outfits that hire correspondents and freelancers to circumvent a legal provision requiring companies with more than 12 employees to pay the minimum wage.

The softspoken Mangilit says he can identify with such journalists, since he once worked on contract that was repeatedly renewed because the company wanted to avoid honoring the same legal rule. With more than a tinge of sadness in his voice, he observes that “the labour scheme in the Philippines is heading towards the practice of keeping employees under short-term contracts, among other discriminatory policies”.

This only makes NUJP’s bid to officially become a trade union all the more urgent. Admits Mangilit: “I think it took time for us to connect the labour issue to the bigger scheme which is press freedom and the fact that socio-economic conditions of journalists also falls under press freedom.”

Strength in numbers?

The good news is that becoming part of SEAJU could help NUJP speed up the process of transforming itself into a working trade union. As a SEAJU member, NUJP would have easier access to organisations similar to itself, and with which it could exchange views and discuss possible solutions to problems.

Mangilit says, “As far as killings are concerned, the Philippine experience would really be more glaring compared to everyone else.  But as far as censorship issues, labor issues, our concerns…journalists in the region are dealing with almost the same conditions.”

“Maybe,” he continues,  “we can get the Malaysian experience and at the same time trade our experience as far as fighting censorship is concerned. Because I know how crucial censorship is as an issue in Malaysia.”

The National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM) has certainly been successful in fighting for fair wages and other monetary benefits. But Mangilit — whose calm demeanor does not match his apparent passion in pursuing NUJP’s many campaigns – may wind up dismayed should he realise that many of his Malaysian counterparts do not seem to have as much enthusiasm as he does in pushing for press freedom and freedom of expression.

“If we wanted to, NUJM can be more influential,” says the union’s chairman, Chin Sung Chiew, in an interview through Facebook. “But now we are relying more on our members.”

Formed in 1962, NUJM currently represents some 1,400 members spread across 10 newspapers.

“Some of our members, especially journalists from Chinese dailies – very few of them are really interested in fighting for press freedom,” Chin says. “They are just still talking or discussing rather than (initiating) real action due to an attitude of selfishness.”

More than likely, they simply do not want to suffer the same fate as journalist Hata Wahari, formerly of the Malay daily Utusan Malaysia. In 2011, when he was then NUJM president, Hata had urged for reforms within the newsroom that would move it away from its daily agenda filled with government propaganda. Yet instead of gaining sympathy and support for his suggested changes, Hata was accused of being an opposition sympathiser. He was also fired by his media employer for allegedly issuing statements defamatory to the company. When he held a symbolic one-man protest outside his former office in May 2013, Hata had to endure being heckled and cursed by his own ex-coworkers, including one who threw fried noodles packed in plastic at his head. (Hata is now with RSF.)

The journey so far

In any case, Mangilit says that although it has yet to formally become a trade union, NUJP is nevertheless seen by media companies as sparing “no one” when it comes to labour issues. One of its programmes also focuses on media workers’ welfare; according to the NUJP website, activities under this programme include training workshops and consultations “to help colleagues organise and build power in their workplaces”, as well as the development of projects “that will address the current working conditions of the Filipino working press”.

In addition, NUJP assists media-victims of impunity and their families, with such efforts including a journalist orphans’ education fund and monitoring the progress of media-killing cases in the judicial system.

But Mangilit says that what NUJP has “effectively addressed” so far is “the need for strong ethical practice”. He says that NUJP’s regular safety training workshops include talks on ethics, which then lead to discussions on “the economic conditions of journalists”.

CCJD’s Batario, for his part, says that when it comes to the fight against impunity, NUJP has been “largely effective in mobilising mass actions like marches, vigils, forums and school outreach activities on impunity and impunity-related issues”. He also cites in particular NUJP’s dogged monitoring of the ongoing court trial on the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, where most of those who were slain were media personnel. Batario says that NUJP, among other things, exerted pressure on the justice department to set up a special court and supported requests from networks for live coverage.

He says that since NUJP is the only national union of journalists in the Philippines, it should be at the forefront in the anti-impunity campaign.

“At the same time,” says Batario,  “it should continue to work with other media support groups, organisations, press associations, and advocacy groups to present a more united front.  Its most crucial role would be in keeping issues such as killings, harassment, denial of access to information, forcible closure of radio stations due to ‘non-payment of permit fees and taxes’, and the like top of mind and in the public sphere, not only at the national but at the local level, as well by mobilising its chapters in the provinces.”

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Alyaa Abdul Aziz Alhadjri, a journalist of the Ant Daily, Malaysia, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killings in the Philippines.]

Click this photo to see all of Alyaa Alhadjri’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.

Alyaa Alhadjri's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014
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