High price for press freedom

Source: The Philippine Star

The Philippines likes to boast that since the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the country has the freest press in Asia but with 13 journalists murdered this year, freedom has come at a high price for the fourth estate.

In 2004 the Philippines earned the distinction of having more journalists killed than any other country in the world with the exception of Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

Since democracy was restored to this Southeast Asian archipelago nation nearly 19 years ago, 61 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines, almost twice the number slain during the two decades of Marcos rule.

Of that 61 not one individual has yet to stand trial for any of the murders.

“On paper the numbers look pretty bad,” Carlos Conde, secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, told AFP.

“But there are a confluence of factors at play here.

“Most of the journalists murdered here have been killed outside of the capital, Manila.

“Once your move outside Manila everything changes. What you and I take as being normal disappears.

“In many parts of the country it is almost feudal with warlords controlling everything from drugs and gambling to illegal logging.

“Against this background it is a very brave journalist who speaks out against these sorts of people and their activities.

“Those that do set themselves up to be killed and that is the sad fact of life.”

Luis Teodoro, former dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, said in a recent interview that: “It’s not that Filipinos are any more unfriendly to journalists than in other parts of the world.

“It’s a cultural thing. At the local level, the justice system is weak. Prosecutors might be afraid. Or they may be acting on behalf of powerful people. There have been many cases of police collusion. And there are a lot of loose, unlicensed guns in the Philippines.

“Non-functioning courts, corrupt and incompetent police, local interest, drug lords, gambling lords, lack of ethics. It’s a lethal combination.

“There’s little respect for the law. Some politician might say, ‘I’ve been offended. Why waste time going to court? I’ll just shoot the son of a bitch.'”

Many of the journalists killed have been radio commentators or local radio journalists.

“Just listen to some of the provincial radio stations of a morning and hear what those guys are saying. I am constantly amazed at the abuse they dish-out,” Conde said.

“Manila politics is so far removed from the politics of the rest of the country. There is no comparison.

“Yes, we have libel and defamation laws. But in the provinces the courts are not the most popular way of dealing with the press. Generally speaking people don’t resort to the courts as often as they should. It is easier to simply remove the problem of an outspoken journalist.”

Conde said the problem for journalists in the provinces is compounded by the fact that they are poorly paid and receive no benefits.

As a result they are forced to supplement their incomes by other means.

He admitted some journalists “cross the line” taking on public relations work or working for local politicians. He said some have been accused of being informers for police or gang leaders.

“Journalism in the provinces isn’t black and white. It’s not as simple as in other democracies where the rule of law is part of the fabric of normal life,” he said.

Despite calls from local and international journalist organizations very little has been done to solve the murders.

According to Teodoro one reason why the murders have not been solved is the fact that some of them have been killed for personal reasons not professional.

He said: “There are rarely witnesses to the murders. And if there are, they have no interest in coming forward for fear of their lives.

“At the local level, if you know something it could be dangerous for you.

“Even if someone did bother to come forward it might very well be useless, as police are often involved in the crimes themselves.”
– AFP