By Htar Htar Myint
MANILA – A cupboard full of books stands against a wall covered with posters of Philippine media organisations. The small room feels somewhat stuffy despite the air-conditioning. In the centre of the room sits a table, where files with red covers are stacked.
The files contain details of murders of journalists in the Philippines in recent years. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), which calls this tiny space its headquarters, is keeping track of these murders. It estimates that more than 40 journalists have been killed in the last five years. From 1986, when democracy was restored in the Philippines, the NUJP says some 90 journalists have been slain.
“If you look at any file, you can see who the victim was, what his life was, why he was killed, how he was killed, the trial of the murder in court and the newspaper reports on his killing,” says NUJP chairman Jose Torres, referring to the red stacks in front of him.
Torres says most of the murdered journalists were investigating abuse of government authority at the time of their death. University of the Philippines journalism professor Luis V. Teodoro also asserts, “Very powerful people like warlords and high ranking military officials are behind the killers.”
Known for its vibrant media, the Philippines paradoxically has been slipping in world press freedom rankings. Observers note wryly that even Burma, with its absence of media freedom, has no reported instance of a journalist being murdered for doing his or her duty. In 2005 and 2006, international media monitors like Reporters sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders) were even prompted to describe the Philippines as the most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq. Russia has since taken over that notorious title, based on the number of media people killed in a year. Observers say, however, that the fact that many media murders remain unsolved here is a cause of concern.
“When journalists are killed for their work reporting on corruption and crime, it is a serious strike to press freedom,” said then Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Ann Cooper in a 2006 letter to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “The unpunished murders of journalists, most of them rural radio broadcasters, have a chilling effect on the press and harm the ability of journalists to report on issues of local and national importance.”
According to a 2007 study by the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) in Manila, of the cases of journalists who were murdered during the Arroyo administration (which began in 2001), 15.2 percent were still under trial, 51.5 percent under investigation, and 12.1 percent pending prosecution. About 15.2 percent, it adds, had been dismissed due to “lack of evidence against the suspects”.
The case of radio commentator, TV host, and newspaper editor Edgar Damalerio nearly wound up in that legal limbo. Damalerio was gunned down on 13 May 2002, while he was on his way home in Pagadian City, in the Philippine south. Just 32 years old, he left behind a wife and five-month-old son.
Damalerio was probing corruption allegations against local government officials shortly before his death. A witness implicated a former police officer in the killing. The suspect disappeared two days before a judge issued a warrant for his arrest in February 2003, but he gave himself up to the police a year later. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2005.
In 2006, three men were also handed life terms for the murder of government whistleblower-turned-journalist Marlene Esperat. But the alleged masterminds – former regional officials of the Department of Agriculture – remain scot-free to this day, the murder cases against them dismissed by a regional court judge.
Teodoro thinks that influential people in the country can elude the law. Other media observers here also say that the judgements on Damalerio and Esperat’s assassins are more exceptions than the norm, noting that justice has yet to be served in majority of the media murder cases.
Fear is a big hurdle, making it hard to even find government prosecutors for the trial.
According to NUJP’s Torres, the victims’ families and relatives are often afraid to give evidence. In some cases, too, the witnesses suddenly disappear.
Press freedom amid fear
Journalists here in Manila say that in spite of all the unsolved killings they still feel free to report what they want, and that in general there is no censorship. But Teodoro makes a distinction between freedom for urban and rural media organisations. He says that those belonging to the latter have to be extra careful as local authorities are known to have closed down some broadcasters for alleged legal violations. In some cases, worse has happened.
Observes Teodoro: “We can say we are partly free because the killings were in the countryside. Most (of the murdered) victims were local broadcasters.”
Radio is the main source of information for people in the Philippines, reaching out to more than 80 percent of the population, followed by television, and then the newspapers.
One government official here says that journalists with rural radio stations are paid low salaries and thus resort to extortion. He says these unscrupulous broadcasters try to blackmail political and business bigwigs by threatening to make false news reports about them unless they pay up. “That is why they get killed,” says the official.
Media practitioners here and elsewhere in the country admit that some of their colleagues are guilty of unethical practices. But they nevertheless link the media killings to legitimate investigations of anomalies and questionable governance.
Journalists’ organisations, though, concede that a strict observance of media ethics is important to ensure the safety of the members of the media. Red Batario, executive director of the Centre for Community Journalism and Development, says, “If journalists were unskillful and unethical, people wouldn’t care when they were killed. That is why we should care to promote media ethics.”
As it is, the perception that many media members are corrupt has led some Filipinos to distrust those in the profession. One 25-year-old hotel assistant manager here in fact says this is the reason why she doesn’t like journalists. That may also mean she is not very sympathetic when they get into trouble or are killed.
Then again, Filipinos may have already become immune to news upon news about murders, media-related or not. Violent crimes are a staple in radio and TV news programs, so much so that these now seem part of everyday living. Comments a 23-year-old cook: “I feel sad when I hear that someone has been killed. But I do not care much because I have been hearing about a lot of killings since I was young.”
Batario argues that killers escape justice because people do not seem concerned about human rights. “People lack awareness of human rights,” he says. “They don’t know what their rights are. They don’t know how to get their rights. That is why the killers can act with impunity.”
Murderers among the powerful
It could also be because some of the killers are part of the country’s power elite. Local government and police officials, for instance, have been implicated in several media killings. Some military personnel have also been accused of being involved in the murders of journalists, human-rights activists, and peasant leaders in recent years, with no less than a 2007 United Nations investigation saying the same thing. Local human-rights groups have linked the murders to ‘death squads’ in heavily militarised areas as well. But the military has repeatedly denied these allegations, instead pointing the finger at the communist New People’s Army (NPA).
“It may be that communist guerrillas were involved in some cases,” allows Batario, “but we are sure that military gunmen were really involved in the killing of journalists.”
One former journalist, meanwhile, says that President Arroyo has failed to look after the safety of media personnel, even though the Philippine chief executive has called on the police to look into the media killings. Says the ex-journalist: “The president does not seem to be taking the threat seriously. She promised a lot but nothing has happened.”
It’s an accusation that the Palace has become apparently used to hearing. In February 2007, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye reiterated, “We do not condone a culture of violence. We have resolved some cases involving journalist killings at the (investigation) level and prosecutions are underway. We will not stop until all murderers are brought to justice.”
That, of course, has not stopped media groups and outfits from putting pressure on the government to act, and quickly. Some organisations like the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, Inc. (FFFJ) have also extended financial and legal assistance to victims’ families, as well as to journalists who have been harassed and threatened.
These days, while there are those who say there has been very little progress in the investigation of the media murders, Batario begs to differ, saying, “We are working with international organisations. The situation is better than before.”
One can only hope that there would be no more additions to the grim red files at the cramped NUJP office. But Torres says, “Until there is respect for human rights, the same stories will be repeated.”
Htar Htar Myint is a reporter of the “Voice Weekly” in Rangoon. This article was produced under the SEAPA 2007 Journalism Fellowship.