Ampatuan Massacre a portent of more unpleasant things to come?

The year 2009 gave the Philippines the dubious record of having the most number of journalists killed in a single incident. Thirty media practitioners were killed on November 23 in the Southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, with one missing and presumed dead.

The media workers killed were in a convoy of journalists moving to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy of Buluan town vice-mayor Datu Eshmael “Toto” Mangudadatu for governorship of Maguindanao. They were with the wife and sisters of Mangudadatu when they were blocked off, abducted, and ultimately massacred by a reported company of 100 armed men—members of a private army allegedly maintained by Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., Mangudadatu’s likely rival for the gubernatorial post in Maguindanao. Ampatuan Jr. is now detained at the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila, multiple murder charges having been filed against him and other senior members of his clan.

For all its notoriety, however, the Maguindanao massacre was but an extreme sample of a larger problem of impunity that has loomed over the Philippines and Philippine media for the past two decades. Even before that one day’s carnage, CMFR had documented 81 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986—more than half of whom were murdered under the term of incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In 2009 alone, CMFR  recorded three other journalists/media practitioners murdered in the line of duty: Ernesto Rollin (23 February 2009), Crispin Perez Jr. (9 June 2009), and Godofredo Linao (27 July 2009).

Rollin was killed while he was on his way to work when a gunman shot him along the highway in Talic Village, Oroquieta City. Rollin was described as a hard-hitting commentator who made it his mission to expose illegal activities in the province of Misamis Occidental.  Last May, a suspect in the killing of Rollin, Joel Jumalon, was arrested by local police for another case.  A case against Jumalon for the murder of Rollin has been filed.

Perez, a radio commentator at the local government-owned FM radio station dwDO in San Jose City, Occidental Mindoro province, was shot outside his home last June 9. His widow has filed a case against the alleged gunman, Darwin Quimoyog, a policeman.

In Surigao del Sur, a gunman shot radio blocktimer Godofredo Linao along a provincial road on 27 July 2009. Linao hosted a weekly public affairs program which was sponsored by Vice Governor Librado Navarro of Surigao del Sur, for whom Linao was a spokesperson.

Linao’s colleagues think the killing could have been work-related. They noted that he regularly discussed corruption in the local government. The widow of Linao, however, also believes the case could be politically-motivated as Linao was planning to run as provincial board member in the 2010 elections.

Whatever the reasons behind Linao’s (and everybody else’s) assassination, clearly, the pattern of impunity and violence against journalists had its roots prior to Maguindanao, and it will likely be exacerbated as 2010—an election year—unfolds.

Most free, yet most dangerous
The physical violence inflicted on Filipino journalists is doubly unfortunate given the impunity they signal as well as the blight they put on the rest of the Philippine media environment, which, for all its dangers, remains vibrant and one of the region’s most liberal.

The Philippines is simultaneously touted as having the freest press in Asia, as well as the most dangerous environment for journalists in the world.

This ironic reality will continue in 2010, and will likely be magnified on both sides of the picture, as national elections approach in May. The polls and the spike in violence traditionally attendant to Philippine elections make Filipino journalists powerful as well as vulnerable in seasons such as this.

At the same time, the Philippine media sector as a whole will remain dynamic, fiercely and largely independent of government, and yet compromised by its very model of business, and dependency on powerful interests that are themselves compromised by the nature of politics and government.

In 2009, the Philippine media landscape continued to shift under these seemingly incongruent premises of violence and freedom, of vibrancy and dependency.
Media ownership was a crucial point to consider, for example, and will likely be a crucial discussion for the Philippine media in the year ahead. In 2009, Media Quest, a subsidiary of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. headed by business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan, acquired major shares of the television company TV5 (formerly known as ABC-5). Previously, TV5 had entered into a blocktime agreement with MPB Primedia Inc., a a local company connected with the Malaysian media conglomerate Media Prima Berhad.  According to “Business Mirror”, it was the “sixth investment by Media Quest in media companies.” Others include a 30-percent stake in BusinessWorld Publishing Corp.; a 51-percent interest in Nation Broadcasting Corp. (NBC); and 33.5-percent in SkyCable Corp. It also acquired in July 2007 licensed DTH firm GV Broadcasting Systems Inc. which later changed its name to MediaScape Inc.

Pangilinan’s media holdings keeps to a trend that raises concerns about the patterns of big media ownership in the Philippines. Intertwining business and political interests, and media independence, become legitimate matters of concern where businessmen invested in key government franchises and public utilities are also the main owners of the biggest media companies. Apart from the leading telecommunications magnate’s investment in print and broadcasting, for example, one of the biggest broadcasting networks, ABS-CBN, is owned by the Lopezes, a family invested in government franchises for energy and water.

Citizen journalists
One undisputed boon for the flow of independent news and commentary in the Philippines lies in the emergence of online platforms, citizen journalists, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

As of June 2009, there were approximately 24 million Internet users in the Philippines, a little less than a quarter of the national population. The Nielsen research group says that 28 percent of Filipinos in urban Philippines are Internet users. I-Café Pilipinas, a national network of Internet café owners, operators and associations  in the Philippines, said there are between 30,000 to 40,000 Internet cafes around the country.

It is no surprise then that bloggers and citizen journalists have played critical roles in Philippine politics in recent years. In the coming year, blogs and citizen journalism sites are consciously being raised—and recruited—to inform and empower the electorate during elections. Top media companies like ABS-CBN  engaged citizen journalists to help in reporting irregularities during the 2007 elections. In 2009, ABS-CBN again launched “Boto Mo, I-Patrol Mo” (“Monitor your vote”) for the 2010 national elections. GMA-7 meanwhile launched its own citizen journalism initiative, “YouScoop”.

The absence of a regulatory board for the Internet, in this light, is seen as a positive in the interests of free expression and independent media.

Legislation on media
The emergence of citizen journalists to complement a traditionally rambunctious press is one thing, however, the deliberate cultivation by the state of a stable and holistic environment for press freedom and greater public access to information quite another. In this regard, legislative battles that came to fore in 2009—particularly for access to information, and for protecting the editorial independence and confidence of the media—will continue to be key fronts for Philippine press advocates in 2010.

Though none were passed in 2009, three bills taken up last year must be monitored in the coming months. The bills on the Right of Reply, Freedom of Access to Information (FOI), and Decriminalization of Libel are still pending in Congress.
As of the writing of this report,  the FOI Bill is tantalizingly close to being passed by a bicameral committee—but is also this close to being ignored and left hanging. FOI advocates are scrambling to shore up support and commitment from legislative leaders in the face of a fast-closing window before Congress adjourns and/or prioritizes other measures over this crucial piece of legislation.

Indeed, in 2009 the Philippine House of Representatives was more active in pushing for the passage of a controversial Right of Reply bill, which would compel editors to run rebuttals of their stories. Because of media resistance, the House version has been watered down, with the removal of imprisonment terms and the insertion of “editorial discretion” in its clauses. But the media organizations have stood firm that the bill should be totally scrapped, arguing that even a watered down version would nonetheless proscribe mechanisms for undermining the independent daily judgments of newsrooms.
Meanwhile, a continuing campaign to decriminalize defamation will likely just continue into this year once more, once again with no assurances of finally being passed.

A progressive judiciary
It helped in 2009 that press advocates in the Philippines seemed to have their voices and positions well considered by the courts. The Philippine chief justice, Reynato Puno, himself in late 2008 had circulated a memorandum encouraging judges to refrain from meting out prison terms in defamation cases. He had also repeatedly spoken out on impunity, and the need to protect the country’s journalists.

Beyond the Chief Justice’s personal openness to the advocacies of the media, the Supreme Court in 2009 was generally helpful in the pursuit of justice for slain journalists. Several cases of murder were transferred to safer trial venues after the Supreme Court approved the requests of the families of slain journalists and of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists. These include the cases of Sultan Kudarat-based Marlene Esperat and General Santos City-based Dennis Cuesta.

Still, the problems remain, and the courts are ultimately just another battle ground for the press and those with interests to stifle its influence. In the island of Masbate, a local official and a local electric cooperative filed five separate libel cases against Joaquin Briones Jr. and Ronnie Valladores, former publisher and managing editor-columnist of the “Masbate Tribune”, respectively.

Two of the cases were filed by Vice Governor Vicente Homer Revil for Valladores’s columns on the alleged implausible reasons behind the issuance of an Environmental Compliance Certificate by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the contractor of a coal-powered plant in the province. Valladores criticized the failure of the office of Revil to submit to the DENR the resolution of the Provincial Board against the building of a coal-powered plant because of trifling technical difficulties (e.g., the printer had no ink).

Even as the case is pending, it illustrates the continuing intimidation of the media, and the wielding of archaic laws as well as a burdensome judicial system. Even prior to Revil’s latest charges, Briones had already spent five years in prison, between 2000 and 2005, for libel—over earlier criminal defamation suits filed by the same official. Briones had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, but was granted parole in 2005.
In this light, critics say the latest charges against him and Valladores are frivolous, and in fact simply meant to harass Briones, the parolee, with the prospect of being re-arrested and recommited to prison.

Such tragic stories illustrate, once again, the importance and influence of Filipino journalists, but also their continuing vulnerability to laws and systems that need overhauling. Such tragedies and challenges will likely continue to be highlighted and exposed in 2010.

(SEAPA thanks the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility for its contribution to this report.)