[This is the sidebar story to “When local power turns deadly” also by Donny Sandjaya Suparman]
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Anyone still half asleep at six in the morning can jolt himself wide awake simply by tuning in to Bombo Radyo General Santos. By then, Jonathan ‘Janjan’ Macailing is already inside his booth, banging on a bass drum and announcing news at a pace and decibel level that could put jet planes to shame.
His show is called ‘Bombo Hanay Bigtime’ and for two hours every day except Sunday, the 35-year-old anchorman regales his audience with all sorts of current affair tidbits. Yet while his voice is loud enough to leave one’s ears ringing, Macailing keeps his tone so friendly and cheerful that one is shocked to find out that he packs an Israeli Bul M-5 .45-calibre pistol. In truth, he has been its proud owner even before the Philippine legislature passed a law in 2013 that allowed media practitioners to own and carry a gun while on duty.
Macailing says he feels safer and more confident with the M-5 on him. Whenever he forgets his gun, he says, “I feel like an easy target.”
The manager of Bombo Radio GenSan, Macailing has received two death threats so far. The first came in 2004, sometime after he made a comment on air on an alleged ghost project involving several officials of Sarangani Province. The second threat was made six years later, after, Macailing says, he came down too hard on corruption among customs officials in General Santos.
By then, though, the senior broadcaster had bought the M-5, which is matte black and mean-looking. He says he didn’t really consider getting a gun even after getting the first threat, but his colleagues had egged him to buy one. “It’s not my own decision, there were some people who were concerned for my safety,” says Macailing. “My friends who were threatened also, they asked me to (get) my own gun.”
Yes, Macailing has gun-toting colleagues here in General Santos, even though far-flung Sarangani is among the provinces in this country that are still media-killing-free. Such places seem to be getting scarcer, but Macailing and other journalists here want to make sure General Santos, which is more than 1,600 kms south of Manila, at least stays that way. At present, the local journalists’ shooting club has 18 members, while a similar group in nearby Cotabato City has 20. Most of the shooting- club members have been ambushed or received death threats. Many of them also own firearms, and some carry their guns while out on field.
Arming journalists has always been controversial, with one argument being that it muddles the image of members of the press as mere observers who will not take sides even if a fight broke out. And for sure, the possession of a gun could well make a journalist a target in a battlefield or even a crime scene. But the likes of Macailing have apparently chosen to take that risk since, well, they believe they are already targets. Macailing also says he would rather carry a gun than change his profession.
The thinking of many journalists here is that no one can guarantee their safety except themselves. Says Aquiles Zunio, president of the General Santos Journalists’ Shooting Club: “Your safety is your personal lookout. Do not trust…anybody else, even law enforcers.”
Alan Nawal, Davao City bureau chief of the national Philippine Daily Inquirer, agrees. “The reality is when you call the police, it will take time (for them to come),” he says. “It will take at least 30 minutes.”
Nawal says that in July 2013, he became the target of an assassination attempt. He believes the attempt on his life had something to do with stories he wrote on drugs and gambling in which politicians and policemen were allegedly involved. “I had a gun, I protected myself,” he says. Apparently, Nawal had noticed intruders inside his family compound in two separate instances. He fired his gun in the air to scare them away both times; he also chased and was able to get hold of one of the intruders during the second incident.
Nawal brought the intruder he caught to the police. But it would be Nawal who would end up jailed without charge for two days. The police chief also approved the intruder’s filing of a case against Nawal – for grave threat, which would later be upgraded to serious legal detention by the city prosecutor. Nawal has since filed an administrative complaint against the police chief.
In a way, Nawal’s case may help explain why some journalists who carry guns remain wary. Macailing, for instance, discourages members of his family from posting online pictures that include him. Friends Joseph Jubelag and John Unson meanwhile both say that they have taken to treading softly in some of their reports even though they have firearms.
“Sometimes you need to exercise wise judgment, because there’s no story worth your life” comments Unson, who reports for the Philippine Star, another national broadsheet. “Even if some of us are armed here, we exercise wise judgment in our story, the sentence structure.”
Most probably, too, gun-carrying journalists are aware of the disapproval of many of their colleagues. Among the non-gunlovers is Malu Cadelina Manar, a radio broadcaster and correspondent for several media outfits. She says she has no gun despite having received threats. “I believe a gun can’t protect me from harm,” Manar says. “It’s like inviting more trouble.”
Davao City-based Ryan Rosauro of the Philippine Daily Inquirer also says being armed would not necessarily save an assassin’s target. He says there have been “several journalists” who were carrying firearms when they were killed. Joselito Paloma, editor of the Surigao Star, even had two guns and a bodyguard with him when he was killed way back in 1985. A more recent example is the case of Romeo Olea, 49, who was shot dead in Iriga City in June 2011. For weeks, Olea had been receiving death threats; several days before he was killed, he had started carrying a gun.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) itself has repeatedly made clear that it is against the idea of armed journalists. In a July 2014 statement issued to clarify its non-involvement in a gun-safety training activity in North Cotabato that had local media members in attendance, the NUJP reiterated “its long-standing position that journalists should not arm themselves in the course of carrying out their work. While we respect the individual right to bear arms in self-defense, we do not endorse this or any activity that may encourage it”.
It added, “We have said so before and say once again: It is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens; the journalist’s job is to report on issues and events.”
The problem is, several journalists say, the state can no longer protect its citizens. They say one proof of this Republic Act No. 10591, which now allows journalists — as well as accountants, bank tellers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, cashiers, rabbis, imams, and priests — to carry licensed firearms while they are duty. This, says Rosauro, is an “admission that the primary guarantor of one’s security (has failed) and that is why you are allowed to carry guns to protect yourself”.
Asked for her views on such comments, Justice Secretary Lilia de Lima only goes far as saying that the government is not refusing its responsibility to protect journalists. But she says, “In the meantime that government cannot fully ensure their safety, I see nothing wrong with allowing them (to have guns).” – Donny Suparman
This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Donny Sandjaya Suparman is an Indonesian journalist, working as a TV reporter for the Trans7, Indonesia, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.