President-elect’s pronouncements endorse impunity

Duterte’s statements on media killings sends the wrong signal to the region

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance said it was “deeply disturbed by Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements” during a press conference last Tuesday when he said that most journalists are being killed in the country because they are corrupt.

In a 31 May press conference, a reporter asked Duterte, “What is your policy about the journalist killings which the Aquino government failed to act [upon]?”

The president-elect replied to the question explaining his views on why journalists are being killed. He explained that the reason most journalists were killed because they extorted, accepted bribes, took sides or attacked their victims needlessly.

“We find Duterte’s statements irresponsible and dangerous as these send the wrong signal about the work of journalists,” said Eko Maryadi, chairperson of SEAPA. He added that Duterte “does not seem to understand the principle of press freedom.”

“With his explanation, the incoming President has perversely rationalised the grim reality plaguing the media in the country,” said Ed Legaspi, SEAPA executive director, who noted that the Philippines is third  in the world in the death toll of journalists killed in the line of work since 1992.

Legaspi added that “While it is true that corruption exists within the media community, Duterte made a sweeping conclusion about why journalists are being killed in the Philippines. But the fact is that many journalists are killed or attacked for their work or because of their exposés on corruption and criminality. They are targeted for doing their jobs as watchdogs on government and society.”

The roster of journalists killed in the Philippines include numerous names of journalists who exposed corruption and abuse of power, including Marlene Esperat, Edgar Damalerio, and Gerry Ortega, among many others. The 32 journalists killed in the Ampatuan massacre, history’s worst-ever attack on journalists, were killed in election-related violence in 2009.

Maryadi said that Duterte’s sweeping pronouncements “displayed his arrogance toward the media. He sullied without exception the names and memories of the all the 152 journalists killed in the line of duty.”

The danger of Duterte’s response to the valid question of how to address journalist killings was that he did not answer the question at all, Legaspi noted. “Duterte stopped at his rationalization for the murders as a response to perceived abuses by journalists: he said they have done something so they were targeted.”

“We fear that the President-elect’s message can be interpreted that killing journalists under these circumstances are justifiable in the eyes of those offended; and that the rule of law need not be followed if journalists have abused their positions. This is the message he is communicating to the Philippine media,” said Maryadi.

It is telling that Duterte also did not answer the follow-up question, ‘is that enough reason to kill [a journalist]?” Duterte stopped short of saying killing journalists is wrong and must be stopped.

The president-elect even went on to say that freedom of expression and the Constitution cannot protect journalists.

“We would like to remind the incoming President that it is his duty to uphold these rights by protecting journalists,” said Maryadi.

“With his pronouncements, President-elect Duterte is also sending the wrong signal to the rest of the region that has often raised the issue of an unethical media as a justification for control and censorship. The Philippines appalling record of murders of journalists and Duterte’s justification of killing abusive journalists might be cited as an examples of what could happen with an uncontrolled media,” said Legaspi.

As an organization that has campaigned to end impunity for the killings of journalists, SEAPA again poses the same question to President-elect Rodrigo Duterte: “What is your policy about journalist killings?”

“Without an answer, Duterte’s statements could be seen as endorsing impunity,” SEAPA said.