Urgent and decisive response needed to curb media killings

With three new killings of journalists, the Philippine government has utterly failed in its duty to protect journalists

It is a terrible coincidence that there have been three murders of journalists in the Philippines between International Day to End Impunity (IDEI on 23 November) and the International Human Rights Day:

  •  On 29 November, radio journalist Joash Dignos was shot dead by four unidentified men in Valencia, Bukidnon province in Mindanao. Dignos was known to be a harsh commentator, who frequently talked about issues in the city. Earlier in June, a grenade exploded in the DXGT radio station while Dignos’s program was being aired.
  • One week later, radio anchor Michael Melo was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen on board a motorcycle Tandag city, Surigao province, also in Mindanao. Melo was national supervisor for of Prime FM 99.1 radio and also managing editor of a local newspaper.
  • On December 11, radio program host Rogelio Butalid was shot dead in Tagum city, Davao Del Norte province, also in Mindanao. Butalid was shot dead in front of the Radyo Natin 107.9 FM station as he was about to go home after his radio program.
  • The day earlier, Iloilo city (in the Visayas region) radio reporter Jonavin Villalba survived an ambush just outside his home after returning from work.

These incidents reinforce the Philippines’ reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, and certainly Southeast Asia’s. The country is the only one in Southeast Asia where killings of journalists happened in 2013 – with a chilling total of 12 dead.

Not all journalist killings are work-related,  such as the Melo murder, we have been informed. Killings, which include human rights defenders among typical victims, are usually a fallout of local political or economic disputes, which the national government seems powerless – if not disinterested – to curb.

In no other country is the phrase “culture of impunity” better demonstrated, and its consistency of targeting members of the media community seriously erodes the Philippine press’s reputation of being among the freest in the region.

The Philippine government has effectively defaulted on its duty to protect the free press and freedom of opinion and expression with the unabated killings, and a low proportion of “solved” cases (less than10%), with no mastermind ever convicted.

A chilling reminder of official complacency is the 22 November remark of Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma on the eve of the IDEI that media killings are “not so serious” and that “there is no more impunity” in the Philippines.

One would think that the government would have already learned lessons from the 2009 Ampatuan massacre, when, in an election-related incident, 58 persons were killed including 32 media workers – the worst toll in recorded history.

Coloma echoes the standard defensive reply of government when confronted with the issue of impunity. To be fair though, he has condemned the murders of Dignos and Melo after this regrettable remark.

Still, government’s complacency over media killings reflects its low appreciation of the role of media in Philippine society. In addition to lack of decisive action on media killings, public officials, up to the President, routinely gripe about negative reporting in the media.

Policy-wise, the President and his party has also withheld endorsement of the Freedom of Information bill that has floundered in Congress – depriving civil society and the media of a potent tool to exact accountability of public officials.

Such an attitude towards the media carries dangerous repercussions in the context of local politics under which most media killings have occurred. It constitutes an unspoken policy of tolerance of these killings, which are a sad testament to the industry’s role in keeping watch over local businesses and government officials.

Media murders undermine the special role of media in fulfilling the right to freedom of opinion and expression as a platform to channel public opinion and to access information that must be kept free from interference and safe from attack.

Because of impunity, the reputation of the Philippines for press freedom is dubious for threats to physical safety effectively put a gag on free reporting.

More insidiously, impunity for killings of journalists in the Philippines negates any argument to push for a free press in other countries. Too often have journalists from other countries expressed concern on these killings, and wondered aloud whether a restricted media is an acceptable trade-off for their safety as media professionals.

We refuse to accept that unabated killings and a culture of impunity should  be a terrible price paid for press freedom.

It will take a long process before the culture of impunity is finally erased from the political landscape. Beyond knee-jerk condemnation statements, government must move towards more tangible steps to address the culture of impunity. The Aquino administration must send a clear message that killings will no longer be tolerated and that those responsible must face the full weight of the law.

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