Media Support Groups Face Huge Odds Battling Impunity

The wreckage of the UNTV van at the evidence site for the Ampatuan massacre.The wreckage of the UNTV van at the evidence site for the Ampatuan massacre.
The wreckage of the UNTV van at the evidence site for the Ampatuan massacre.

MANILA – There is one question that is always asked whenever Philippine journalists meet their counterparts from other countries especially those from Southeast Asia.  And it is this: “How come so many journalists in your country continue to be killed when you are supposed to be a democracy?”

There are no easy answers as Filipino journalists and media support groups in the country themselves would say, mainly because the numbers don’t seem to add up when ranged against the country’s democratic gains.

For instance, the Philippines “remained the top performer in the Asia-Pacific in terms of gender equality, even as the country fell four notches to rank ninth out of the 142 economies,” says the Global Gender Gap 2014 report. It is also cited by international media watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as the 3rd most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2014.

It is from this discordant amalgam of issues and events that those who practice the craft and those who work for their protection and safety try to make sense of why such a condition exists in the first place.

“Me and my brother used to be hard hitting commentators but after the massacre (Maguindanao) took place in (November 23) 2009, we somehow slowed down and toned down our reports,” says John Paul Jubelag, a journalist based in General Santos City about 143 kilometers from Maguindanao province where 58 civilians including 32 journalists were killed in broad daylight in the worst ever election-related violence in the Philippines.

Jubelag, who with his brother Joseph publishes the local newspaper Mindanao Bulletin and three other tabloids, is convinced that powerful politicians and others who were the subject of media exposes are hitting back through extra-legal methods.  “I am referring to extra-judicial killings here,” Jubelag says, adding “we have information from authorities that there are killers around who can be hired for a small amount to kill us.”

This illustrates even more acutely the irony of it all.  Journalists are routinely put at risk in a country widely considered as having the freest press and a vibrant democracy. Perpetrators of crimes against journalists are rarely prosecuted lending credence to widespread belief that a culture of impunity prevails in the country.

“When journalists are put at risk the very notion of democracy is put to graver peril.  No amount of safety training can protect journalists when there is no clear understanding and appreciation of the role of the press to verify and make sense of what is happening around us.  When we no longer are able to understand the events unfolding before us nor are able to take corresponding action then we have allowed darkness to rule our lives with consequences so horrendous to contemplate,” according to Red Batario in a paper he wrote titled “Journalists under Fire.”

Batario, a journalist for many years, is the Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD) and Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) based in London.  Both organizations are at the forefront of providing support to journalists especially those in distress.

As pointed out by the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and INSI in their joint publication Live News, “Democracy cannot function while journalists are in fear, but many politicians and state officials believe that a frightened journalist will be a submissive journalist.”

Many journalists in the Philippines said that after the massacre it became even more difficult for them to get information with several saying that they were even threatened by some government officials reluctant to release documents to the media.

“If you are a journalist and you’re investigating something then you are going to be very careful getting information (given the situation),” says Luis Teodoro, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) and Deputy Director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).

“That’s one of the major effects of impunity on investigative journalists,” Teodoro adds.

Battling impunity is also one of the main challenges faced by Philippine media support groups like the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) which was set up after a wave of journalists’ killings swept the country in early 2000.

Impunity’s insidious implications for people’s right to know and the survival of democracy itself are very serious indeed.

Which is one reason the FFFJ actively campaigns against impunity through dialogues, forums and reach out activities.  It also promotes the practice of responsible journalism as the best means of protection, provides immediate financial and legal assistance to families of journalists killed in the line of duty, sends out quick response teams to investigate and report killings and other cases of violence against journalists as well as following up the prosecution of cases involving attacks against journalists.

Established in 2003, the FFFJ is composed of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), Kapisanan ng Brodkasters ng Pilipinas (KBP) or National Association of Broadcasters, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and Philippine Press Institute (PPI).

The FFFJ and other media support groups including its members have been closely working with international media organizations in campaigning against impunity but find themselves facing what seems to be insurmountable odds.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1986, a total of 217 journalists have been killed according to the list of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) which, like the FFFJ and CMFR tracks and issues alerts on incidences of violence against members of the press.

NUJP Secretary General Rupert Mangilitexplains: “We maximize the fact that we have chapters in the provinces so it was not only the Maguindanao chapter that made noise about the massacre and other killings.  Also, we are able to enjoin other media organizations in the campaign (against impunity).”

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) points out that the main challenge it faces is the reluctance of government to investigate, how much more prosecute, journalists’ killings.  Police, according to PCIJ, would often say that the victims were not killed in the line of duty but because of personal issues.The fact is that in a number of cases, members of law enforcement agencies like the local police, were tagged as the gunmen.

In the celebrated case of Edgar Damalerio, the crusading radio reporter in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur who was shot dead near his house on May 13, 2002, the assailant was a policeman in active duty.  He was later convicted of the crime but the mastermind has yet to be identified.

“Our big challenge is making the head of state accountable,” says Vicente B. Corrales, PCIJ multi-media producer.

Many journalists and members of media support groups interviewed by this reporter express disappointment at the slow adjudication of cases especially the Maguindanao Massacre case and they are also upset that the Aquino administration, especially the president, seems unperturbed.

According to CMFR no mastermind has ever been convicted in the 14 cases successfully prosecuted since 1986.  Five other cases were dismissed while 51 remain pending in court including the Ampatuan massacre case.

It also says that in the latter case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged 197 persons including the head of the Ampatuan clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr., with 58 counts of murder.  Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Branch 221 of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court is currently hearing the case.   Fourteen other members of the clan including Andal “Unsay” Jr., and Zalday, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are standing trial.  Others on trial include members of the 1507 and 1508 Provincial Mobile Group of the Philippine National Police as well as militia.

Perspectives from the Press and the President’s Pronouncements

It is an open secret that there is no love lost between President Benigno Aquino III and the Philippine media given what observers have described as the president’s constant bashing of the press for highlighting only his administration’s fumbles rather than its achievements.

Public interest groups, activists, and the media are also disappointed that Aquino has been lukewarm to the idea of passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that they say could somehow address the issue of impunity by providing greater access to official documents.  Passing the FOI bill was a campaign promise of Aquino.

In his 3rd Stateof the Nation Address in July 2014, Aquino outlined the priorities of his administration for the final three years but glaringly omitted human rights, raising concern that less attention would be given to human rights-related issues including journalists’ killings, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

This dim view of governmentis further articulated by journalist Allan Nawal, assistant Mindanao bureau chief of the Philippine Daily Inquirernewspaper when he told this reporter: “I think it would be fair to say that journalists are justified in losing their patience.  Look at what happened to me.”

Nawal, who lives in Digos City, Davao del Sur which is about two hours by bus from Davao City where he works, says he often gets death threats from some government officials and was sued at one point for writing stories about policemen involved in corrupt activities, illegal drugs and gambling.

Another Mindanao journalist, AquilesZonio, who, together with newspaper editor Joseph Jubelag decided not to join the convoy to Maguindanao on November 23, 2009, says “Aquino III had failed the expectations of the families of the victims.  I don’t expect justice to come under his administration.  They (government) could not even pass the Freedom of Information bill which was his campaign promise and he said the same thing about the Maguindanao Massacre case.

An anecdote going around media circles underlines another facet of impunity.  “In one case in Manila, a policeman who felt alluded to by a commentary went to the radio station, grabbed the microphone from the broadcaster and shouted ‘All lies..he (radio commentator) is a liar!,’” says Teodoro of CMFR.

Prima Quinsayas, legal counsel of the FFFJ and who represents 17 massacre victims’ families, wonders why the police could not arrest the suspects in the murder of another journalist, Marlene Esperat, who was gunned down in front of her children while about to have dinner on March 24, 2005.  The alleged masterminds, both officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) regional office in Mindanao, remains at large.

Quinsayas admits having received threatening phone calls asking her to drop the journalists’ cases she is handling.

Teodoro explains that this kind of situation suggests that “democracy is under threat, given what is happening to the press, the killing of local officials, of environmentalists.”

The International News Safety Institute (INSI) further argues that “violent attacks on journalists tend to have a chilling effect.  Attacks hamper the journalists’ ability to probe deeply and report accurately thus depriving the public of its right to know.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2014 report Breaking the Cycle of Impunity inthe Killing of Journalists, “it isn’t just one story that ends with a journalist’s death; a climate of intimidation builds.  If no one is punished, killers are emboldened, and violence repeats.  Journalists have no choice but to censor themselves or even flee into exile.  Targeted attacks on the media have kept the world from understanding the full dimension of violence in Syria, drug trafficking in Mexico, militant influence in Pakistan, and corruption in Russia.”

That the killing of journalists have a direct link with citizens’ right to know and thus increasing their ability to make informed decisions is not lost on the media support groups and journalists trying to combat impunity.  But they also understand that many of the problems that the media face are also the same problems that hound Philippine society.

For instance, many news organizations are owned by powerful politicians, businessmen and government officials making for a potent brew that could easily derail efforts to fight impunity.

At the local level, Teodoro says that while the CMFR is trying to promote awareness of media ethics, in many areas, especially in the provinces, journalists face critical economic issues with many of them forced to work as advertising solicitors as well to make ends meet.  Some work for local politicians, the police or military, the government-run Philippine Information Agency (PIA).

This further complicates the media situation and makes the campaign against impunity that much more difficult.

“To end impunity you have to strengthen the justice system, you have to send to prison those responsible for killing journalists,” Teodoro adds.

It would be too easy to say that the Philippines is a tragic example of how the culture of impunity has become intractable in relation to journalists’ killings when compared to other countries in Southeast Asia like Myanmar, for example.

There are a number of media groups and networks in the country like the Myanmar Journalist Network, Myanmar Press Council, Myanmar Journalists Union, and Myanmar Journalists Association.  Independent media groups and journalists in the country, however, view with some reservation the Myanmar Press Council which is funded by the president.  There is widespread thinking that the Council will not stand up for journalists in distress or work for their welfare as it is beholden to the president.

The Myanmar Journalists Network, on the other hand, was organized by young journalists to provide training support to entry-level reporters especially at the provincial level, advocate for welfare and rights of journalists and take up press freedom and journalists’ safety issues.

It also protested what it felt was government’s violation of democratic freedoms when it tried to draft a new media law that would have a restrictive effect on media practice and sentenced 10 journalists including the media owners in 2014.

Four journalists and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years in prison under the 1923 Official Secrets Act for publishing an investigative story on a secret military facility reportedly designed to produce chemical weapons. The harsh sentence was later reduced to seven years, reports the Asian Tribune, an Australian publication with a strong Asian edition.

Three other journalists working for the Bi Moon-Tae-Nay Journal, Kyaw Zaw Hein, Win Tin, Thura Aung and its owners Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing, were detained and investigated by the special branch police in July 2014.  This came shortly after the journal published a story inaccurately quoting a statement issued by the Myanmar Democratic Current Force (MDCF).

The weekly was eventually shut down on October 16, 2014 on orders of the Pa-be-dan Township Court of Rangoon Division which also sentenced the owners, editors and reporters to two years’ imprisonment.

According to the Asian Tribune, which reported on the arrests and sentencing of the journalists, Section 505 of the Penal Code on which the court based its decision, “is one of the dictatorial laws which successive military regimes used to put political activists and journalists behind bars.”

Adds Myint Kyaw, General Secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network:  “In Myanmar, journalists have been sentenced and killed so other journalists hesitate to report about the most sensitive issues (like conflict).  They know those issues are more dangerous for them (to cover).  And journalists’ families worry about the dangers (faced by their relatives) so they sometimes force them to change careers.”

On November 2, 2014 around 100 Burmese journalists held in Yangon a candlelight prayer vigil to commemorate the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

Political conditions in Myanmar are of course very different from the Philippines so comparisons suffer somewhat.   Its transition to democracy starting in 2010 allowed certain freedoms to be enjoyed by the media only to be faced with other kinds of threats.

In October 2014, freelance journalist Aung KyawNaing reported the fighting between Karen rebels and the Burmese army but was arrested.  According to reports, he was tortured before being shot by a government soldier.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, citing eyewitness accounts, Aung KyawNaing’s body showed signs of torture.

The Myanmar Human Rights Commission is currently investigating the case.

According to the South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)November 2014 report,“recent alarming incidents in Myanmar—the lawsuits against Unity Journal, Bi Mon Te Nay journal and Myanmar Thandawsint, and the killing of Aung KyawNaing—indicate that media freedom in the country has been short-lived, and earlier praise heaped on the government for easing restrictions, is premature. The specter left behind by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, which oversaw the implementation of the 1962 press law, has now dispersed among several entities, which enjoy impunity for acts that suppress the media.”

In many ways, the Myanmar media would have much to learn from the Philippine experience especially in the constant struggle to combat impunity.

That the media support groups in the Philippines continue to chip away at the obstacles to press freedom and the free flow of information despite the odds underlines their determination to help break the cycle of impunity.

From this experience perhaps, the media community of Myanmar can draw valuable lessons that may be able to help them in their own struggle against impunity.

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Nan Lwin is a Burmese Journalist, working as a senior reporter for The Kumudra Weekly Burma, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.]

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

Nan Lwin's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014
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