Journalists Killed in the Line of Duty: the Shame of a Democratic Society

[Source: Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists]

Journalists are vulnerable in many parts of the world.

In the Philippines, the risks are varied, ranging from poor working conditions, lack of job security, low salaries and pressures of all kinds from those wanting to use the press for private and personal purposes.

But the Philippines also stands out as among the world’s most “dangerous assignments” with a record of journalists killed to rival a country like Colombia where war with insurgents and drug lords has raged for decades. Since 1986 when the democratic space of a new regime allowed media watchers to count victims, the record shows a total of 49 killed in the line of duty. This qualification reflects the assessment of factors showing the motive or cause as connected to work. These have included the peril of reporting in battle zones as well as investigating corruption and scandal which powerful people would rather keep hidden from the public eye.

This year, the ten killings so far mark an unprecendented level of attacks against the press. It is a rate that cannot be ignored or brushed aside in a country that proudly proclaims its credentials as a democracy, including its commitment to press freedom.

There are no official policies of repression to intimidate or silence the press. There is no one group that is involved in a national crusade to be rid of journalists they do not like. Indeed, the press continues to be a vibrant presence despite the threats and attacks; and the numerous newspapers, radio and TV stations attest to a level of autonomy from government control.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) which started up a data-base on the killings in 1991 has found that the risk to life for members of the press are not much different from those affecting other development workers who have had to challenge powerful forces. Human rights activists and community forest guards have been killed in the course of their work, often without even the benefit of press reports. To a certain extent, the reason for the killings inheres in the national landscape of violence and lawlessness. As the media are everywhere, it is not surprising for journalists to become objects of the violence they report.

These killings are a scandal and a shame and they must stop. A culture of impunity has allowed so many killers to go unpunished, so many cases to remain unsolved. Such lawlessness stands in the way of democracy and the required growth of institutions that make up the democratic system. Where the press is easily silenced, communities are deprived of the means to create a public forum that connects them with one another. Where the press is weak or afraid, the people cannot complain about the lack of public services, about abusive or erring public officials.

There is not one factor that will break this tragic pattern of press attacks. The lack of understanding of the role of the press plays its part in this situation as the poor appreciation for the value of free expression so strongly protected by the Constitution. Sadly, journalists themselves show this weakness, tainting the practice with lack of professional discipline and responsibility, contributing their excess and abuse to the tension and confusion that sparks violence.

But killings and violence will not solve the problem of irresponsible journalists. The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists includes in its programs on safety training for media a course on ethics and professional values. Public training in media literacy and effective press councils will help but like all efforts at reform will take time.

Beyond the practice, there must be consensus on the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom in our development as a democratic nation. Until, we come to this common ground, all our proud boasting about democracy and press freedom rings false.

For now, the commitment of the police and the courts must demonstrate that culture change is possible. For one, it is imperative that the prosecution of the case of Edgar Damalerio be moved from Pagadian where vital witnesses have been threatened; to be prosecuted instead in Cebu, as his widow has petitioned the high court to allow.

This one step is critical and necessary.

We call on the highest officials of the land to lead in the protection of the press and in building a free press that Filipinos deserve. We begin by going after the killers and those behind the killings, who profit from the silence of dead journalists.

(The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists was formed by the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Philippine Press Institute to assist journalists killed or attacked in the line of duty.)