Media massacre

This is an article I wrote for D+C magazine in Germany this May. Things have just become catastrophically worse

By Alan C. Robles

On March 24, 2005, 45-year-old Filipino journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat was having dinner with her children when a stranger walked in. The man greeted Esperat, “Good evening, ma’am”, and shot her once in the face, killing her in front of her 10-year-old son. It was a barbarity that would have provoked a huge outcry and decisive government action in many countries. The Philippines is not one of those countries. And it hasn’t been for some time now.

Over the last two decades, murdering journalists has developed into a nightmarish industry across the archipelago. According to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), Esperat was the 67th journalist killed since 1986. As of February this year, the NUJP list had grown to 100, including no fewer than 64 since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assumed office in 2001.

Reading through the NUJP list of the slain can be numbing: Arnel Manalo, a columnist and correspondent for a local newspaper in a province near Manila, shot dead by two men on August 2004; Armando Pace, a radio commentator in Mindanao, shot in the back by two men in full view of many witnesses; Fernando Batul, a radio commentator, shot 12 times by two men on May 2006, in Palawan. Two particularly wrenching cases are those of George and Macel Vigo – a husband and wife journalist team in Mindanao murdered by two men on a motorcycle on June 2006 – and Marlene Esperat herself. Her partner, a journalist by whom she had two children, was assassinated in 1989.

This year, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked the Philippines as the sixth most dangerous nation for journalists. The ranking places the Philippines directly after Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Colombia – more dangerous than Afghanistan, Russia and Pakistan. “What is striking,” says the CPJ, “is that the Philippines is one of the only countries in the top half of this list … that is a stable, peacetime democracy.”

Most of the murders have four things in common: first, the victims were provincial journalists, usually not affiliated with major news organisations; second, the victims were exposing – either through commentary or reportage – corruption and abuse of power in their locality. Esperat, a columnist for the Midland Review, a local newspaper in Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat province, was a former government employee who had dedicated her life to detailing graft in the regional office of the Department of Agriculture.

Third, the murderers were unknown gunmen, presumably hired killers. Fourth, hardly any of the killers have been caught. Vergel Santos, a trustee of the watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), says: “I can count the number of solved cases on the fingers of one hand.” The Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), which compiles its own statistics separately from the NUJP, says there have been 78 Philippine journalist murders since 1986, and only two have been “partly resolved”.

Reality has yet to match rhetoric

Shortly after Esperat’s murder, President Arroyo praised the country’s press – “I salute these defenders of democracy” – and warned the murderers, “your days are numbered.” Reality has yet to match rhetoric. While the three men involved in killing Esperat (the gunman and two lookouts) were caught, tried and sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment in 2006, the people they claimed hired them, two high government officials, remain untouched. “Her assassins have been convicted – but not the masterminds who have been identified and charged in court, but have yet to be arrested,” writes Yvonne Chua, editor of the online news site Vera Files.

In the Philippines, murdering a journalist almost always bears no consequences. With a CPJ-reported “impunity rate” of 90 % – “one of the highest in the world” – the odds are strongly in favor of the assassin. Reacting to the CPJ report, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said it was “unfair”. Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said, “the claim that the Philippines is deadliest for journalists may be a bit of an exaggeration”.

For its part, the CPJ insists there is no exaggeration. According to CPJ’s senior representative for Southeast Asia, Shawn Crispin, “the Philippines, with its exceptionally high rate of killings of journalists and especially low rate of prosecutions, has long been a poster-child of impunity in the global context”.

The impunity is sustained by one simple fact, says the CPJ: “absence of justice.” When it comes to investigating journalist murders, the Philippine judicial system isn’t just slow, it’s practically immobile. One reason why the victims are mostly provincial journalists is that in this country, provinces and their courts are dominated by powerful families, warlords and entrenched elites. The CPJ notes: “Research has shown local courts to be ineffective in trying journalist murders. Witnesses have been threatened, attacked and killed while cases were being tried in local courts. Local judges have been reluctant to proceed with cases involving influential public figures.” Another reason for the glacial pace of investigations is that law-enforcement authorities have little cause to love the press. As Santos puts it, “the police themselves always seem prepared to look the other way, (after all) they themselves seem to be targets of (press) criticism.”

Broad offensive against press freedom

President Arroyo’s administration hasn’t just seen the largest number of journalist murders: it’s associated with a broad offensive against press freedom in general. Journalists receive death threats, are harassed legally, and find their access to sources constantly limited. The judicial system, so slow to move when it comes to holding journalist murderers accountable, acts swiftly when filing cases against the press. Three years ago, presidential spouse Jose Miguel Arroyo sued 12 journalists for libel, claiming they had unfairly accused him of corruption, money laundering, influence-peddling – and being obese (one columnist had called the First Gentleman “el esposo gordo”, the fat spouse). One of the journalists was sued for writing that a sick relative of a presidential guard had failed to get any help from Mr. Arroyo. Although the First Gentleman later dropped the suits, which are an expensive and time-consuming burden for journalists, more than 40 journalists filed a class suit against him for violating the constitutional right to a free press. The case is still in court.

This year, the Senate and Congress are moving rapidly to pass a “right to reply” bill that would effectively censor the media by mandating that any person who feels aggrieved by any publication can demand the right to publish a reply in exactly the same space where the article appeared.

Ominously, there has been no public outcry over the assaults on the press. Melinda de Jesus, executive director of the CMFR, notes how “none of these violations have provoked public outrage.” In fact, many have claimed that the press is corrupt, irresponsible, and partially to blame for some of the country’s troubles. It’s certainly true that the Philippine media are far from paragons of professionalism and integrity, but as Santos observes: “No matter how abusive a journalist is, he doesn’t deserve to be murdered, in the same way that no matter how abusive a politician or president might be, he or she doesn’t deserve to be killed.”

Many citizens, dismayed and numbed by the nonstop chronicle of crime and corruption in the media, have simply tuned out. Some have started blaming the messenger, accusing the press of destabilising the country by reporting only “bad news”. This has led to the emergence of a site devoted to nothing but “good news” about the Philippines. Santos scoffs at the notion: “News is neutral: there’s no good or bad news, it only becomes bad or good depending on how you take it.”

What’s worrisome is that the public frustration and apathy can lead to tacit acquiescence in unconstitutional measures. One mayor in Mindanao has met no public resistance to his campaign to clean up crime in his city through the use of death squads reported to have already killed at least 800 people.

Despite the government’s protestations of its fidelity to press freedom, a hint of its true sentiments can be gauged from a remark made four years ago by the director of the National Bureau of Investigation, an Arroyo appointee. Reacting to the rash of murders of journalists, he said, “it is better for them to lessen the ferocity of their attacks against officials. “With public officials venting such sentiments, it is little wonder that the bloodbath hasn’t stopped. According to Santos, the killings continue “because the signal from up the hierarchy is that people in power can get away with it”.

Inadequate government measures

If the public isn’t outraged, various international groups have been moved to express their concern about the murders. This March, SEAPA expressed its “alarm” at the “continuing killing of media workers in the Philippines and the inadequate measures the government is taking to stop them.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, “we have seen a series of killings and attempted killings of radio presenters in the southern Philippines since the start of the year. Appointing special teams of investigators is no longer enough. This climate of violence is encouraged by the lack of progress in certain cases in Mindanao and the glaring failure to punish those behind the murders of journalists.” On March 25, UNESCO sent a blunt letter to the Philippine permanent delegate, Ambassador Rora Tolentino, asking to be updated about the investigation of six journalist murders in the Philippines.

The Arroyo government has responded by forming special “tracker teams” to investigate media killings. In a speech this March, President Arroyo said, “we must bring political killings to zero, including assassinations of government officials and media personalities.” Executive Secretary Ermita went further: “Incidents of killings involving media practitioners have been well contained in the last few years. Moreover, these incidences have all been properly attended to,” he said.

For its part, the CPJ says “it is outrageous for the Philippine government to declare these murders have been ‘properly attended to’ when not one single conviction has been made in any of these cases.” It adds: “There is also no mystery how the Philippine government can get off the list: convict the killers of these journalists.”

The strangest government reaction to date has been that of press secretary Remondo, who says of the murders: “You can also take that as a positive indication of the bravery and dedication of Filipino journalists that they are willing to make the supreme sacrifice on the altar of press freedom.” It’s safe to say, however, that martyrdom is not the reason most journalists choose their profession. As Santos puts it, “there’s no story worth dying for … a dead journalist is a useless journalist.”

Terror across the profession

But the gravity of the issue is not lost on some officials. In a “very urgent” memo not intended for public consumption, UNESCO ambassador Tolentino, informed the home office that “because of the number of journalists killed in the country, the Philippines has the unenviable reputation in UNESCO media circles of being the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Iraq.”

“This,” she noted, “is in spite of the constitutional guarantees on the freedom of expression, of opinion and of the press, and the fact that Manila hosted World Press Freedom Day in 2002 with the Director-General in attendance.”

To Santos, the issues are clear: “This is terrorism, they’re sending terror across the profession.” SEAPA expresses another concern: what’s happening in the Philippines could spread to other countries in Southeast Asia. In a statement, the group said “we believe that the culture of impunity that is deeply rooted in the Philippines could be replicated in other countries in the region unless there is a common effort to dismantle it in the Philippines.” In fact, SEAPA has already reported “an increase in the violence against journalists and media workers in Malaysia and Thailand“.

So far, the media massacre in the Philippines has been sustained by three things: corrupt politicians, a weak judicial system and lack of public outrage. Without outrage, it is unlikely that the first two factors will be corrected.

By tolerating the killings, Filipinos are in effect asking: is freedom of the press a luxury? Unfortunately, they will only learn the answer once that freedom is lost.


Dead end profession

This is a column I wrote for the South China Morning Post more than four years ago. I hear you asking: has anything changed? I reply: “Four years is too short! You should be talking about four centuries. And then there MIGHT be change”

May 12, 2005

Are you a killer for hire? Interested in working in a sunny, tropical country? The Philippines offers plenty of opportunities for aspiring assassins. Assignments are easy, the risks are minimal, and you do not have to worry about being caught. All you have to do is shoot journalists dead.Since 1986, at least 67 have been murdered in this country, possibly making it second only to Iraq as the deadliest place in the world to be a member of the press. None of the cases has been solved. In the last five months, five journalists have been killed; the latest victim was a 53-year-old publisher in Dingalan town, killed by an unknown gunman at home on Tuesday. All the victims were provincial journalists; most of them were broadcasters. Many were working hard exposing the corruption of local government officials.

If a movie like Erin Brokovich – where the protagonist unearths a hazardous waste cover-up – were set in the Philippines, it would end in about 10 minutes, with the heroine murdered and the criminals unpunished. Perhaps in the US, the killing of one or two reporters would ignite a firestorm of public outrage. Here, though, people are largely indifferent. One reason is that the media is seen as loud, unscrupulous and venal. Another is that violence is so engrained in the culture that people take it for granted. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it is still trumped by semi-automatic pistols.

The government has barely lifted a finger to find the assassins. In fact, it is hard to find a trace of sadness or even indignation. Mike Arroyo, husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, recently said that some journalists do not deserve to be in the media. He was reacting to stinging reports about his alleged corruption.

He forgets two things: first, it was the hard-hitting press that helped drive Joseph Estrada from office and install Mrs Arroyo as his successor. Second, a government that cannot find a single murderer does not look like a “strong republic”, Mrs Arroyo’s favourite phrase.

The director of the National Bureau of Investigation, an Arroyo appointee, gave out this piece of advice to journalists: “It is better for them to lessen the ferocity of their attacks against officials.” It is helpful because he indicates not only the possible reason for the murders, but also suggests who the killers might be.

Investigators claim difficulty in cracking just one of the killings. But last month, when a visiting member of the European Parliament was mugged, police solved the case in a couple of days.

Perhaps law enforcement would improve if the killers were to target government leaders. But who could possibly want to shoot a Filipino politician?

The madness of warlords

by Alan C. Robles

Even to a country accustomed to political murder and violence, what happened in the southern Muslim province of Maguindanao is stupefying.

In the full light of day, at least 100 armed men blocked a convoy packed with journalists, supporters, relatives and the wife of a local vice-mayor, Ishmael Mangudadatu . The kidnappers forced the vehicles to detour to another road, made the passengers alight and then shot and hacked the prisoners to death. There are reports they beat and raped the women first. They then used a backhoe – a tractor-mounted excavator – to dig mass graves and pack the bodies in.

The murderers apparently fled when they spotted a military helicopter reconnoitering the area, leaving authorities to arrive later in the killing ground. Bullet-ridden bodies lay near blood spattered vehicles; dozens of corpses – crushed and torn by the excavator – lay in shallow pits. After two days of digging the police have found several graves and recovered 52 bodies, and are unsure how many more they will find. Among the dead: at least 12 reporters, the heaviest single loss of journalists in history . One of the slain women was pregnant. Workers have also unearthed three vehicles, one of them marked “UNDP.”

What authorities seem to have discovered is nothing less than a cemetery from hell, a field where people – and their cars – are made to disappear. This is in a province dominated by governor Andal Ampatuan, the head of a clan and close political ally of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The latest victims had been on the way to the provincial capital to register the vice-mayor Mangudadatu as a candidate for governor in the May 2010 elections. The candidate himself, a member of a clan opposed to Ampatuan’s, had received death threats. So he sent his wife and two sisters – along with non government organization activists and more than a dozen journalists – to register on his behalf. He no doubt reasoned that nobody would dare attack women and reporters.

His logic proved fatally flawed, but only perhaps because the barbarity that ensued was unprecedented and so could not be predicted.

What has not been unpredictable is the action of this government. Apart from calling on police to solve the crime immediately, President Arroyo has declined to directly and publicly call on governor Ampatuan for an explanation. Nor has she pressed him to solve the massacre.

This has been standard behavior for this administration: it moves slowly when close political allies are implicated in crimes — and Ampatuan is a significant power player. The area he governs has 1.5 million registered voters.

Perhaps some Filipinos might think this is just “politics as usual”, made more vicious by the complicated clan warfare which has plagued Muslim Mindanao. They would be wrong. The sheer scale and barbarity of the massacre sets it apart from previous acts of violence, whether murder, bombing or kidnapping. What was perpetrated in Maguindanao brings the words “ethnic cleansing” and “mass murder” to mind. To have thought they could simply make dozens of people vanish, the criminals were either stupid — or breathtakingly brazen.

Around the time the victims were being kidnapped, governor Ampatuan himself was in Manila, holding a meeting with President Arroyo. Could it be possible that the governor was unaware that 100 armed men were wandering around his province? Nobody here believes that for a minute. All the reports written about the Ampatuans have basically one message: they control Maguindanao (one town is named after the family) and it is unsafe to oppose them.

In fact vice mayor Mangudadatu had asked the police to protect his wife’s convoy, but his request was rejected. Witnesses now claim the deputy police chief and two other policemen were present at the massacre.

The butchery at Maguindanao demonstrates how deranged politics in the country have become: at their root is the fact that for generations politics here have been controlled by elites, dynasties and warlords who are above the law. The country has yet to punish the Marcos family for the crimes of the Martial Law dictatorship; former president Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder two years ago, but was immediately pardoned by Arroyo.

The central theme in all this is impunity. The powerful are not held accountable. What makes the irony particularly black and bitter is that the powerful are using public resources. The excavator used in the mass grave was government property. The murderers – military officials now say many of the killers were memebers of Ampatuan’s private army – were issued weapons paid for by taxpayers. For their part, the Ampatuans have not issued any statement so far.

The only question now is whether the public outrage caused by the massacre will be strong enough to prod the government to actually bring the killers to justice, or whether “politics as usual”, especially with an election coming next year, will prevail. The horror in the mass graves speaks for itself: is President Arroyo listening?

Mikey denies everything, wants Facebook regulated

A few days ago, a picture supposed to be of  presidential son Mikey Arroyo turned up on Facebook. You know Mikey? the Congressman who could be a smash bestselling author if only he’d write his secret “How I Became a Multimillionaire In Just A Few Years”? The one who said he purchased a nice house in California using election campaign donations which apparently don’t exist?

Anyway the picture –it’s been taken down now, too bad — supposedly showed the supposed Mikey in the liquor section of Rustan’s supermarket. He was seated, waiting. People who saw the post said that the supposed Mikey was buying liquor at the height of the typhoon, showing crass insensitivity. Although who knows, perhaps the supposed Mikey was seeking spiritual comfort.

Comes the backlash. In an email published by the pro-Estrada, anti-Arroyo Daily Tribune, the young Arroyo  said: “My picture posted at Facebook with a caption saying I was busy shopping for wine at the height of Typhoon Ondoy is another malicious attack at my personality. It is so depressing…How could that be possible that I was at Rustan’s on Katipunan Avenue at the height of Typhoon Ondoy when Katipunan Avenue was impassable at that time?”

Furthermore, “on record, I was in Malacañang at that time with all my family trying to mobilize rescue and relief operations for people of Metro Manila and for my constituents in my district in Pampanga.

“It’s so unfortunate that while we were so busy then trying to help ease the sufferings of our kababayan, some people had the guts and the temerity to peddle malicious innuendos at the expense of others.”

His idea? Attack Facebook. The Congressman writes: “I hope that Facebook and other like mediums be regulated so they can never be subjected to abuse by some scrupulous people. Facebook is easily susceptible to abuses as people can easily hide their identities.”

Seeing as how you’re headed down that way, Congressman, we have a couple of ideas how you might want to accomplish this aim.

  1. Buy Facebook. After all, seeing the way your wealth has grown it’ll only be a matter of time before you can afford Facebook’s $10 billion valuation. When you do buy it, please do something about that Jacque Bermejo character. Find out if she really exists and if she really said that. If she did, marry her off to Chavit Singson or something
  2. Consult the Chinese government. They are the world’s supreme experts on Internet censorship. They could teach you a thing or two. Who knows, they might even sell the country an Internet regulation package consisting of a national broadband network, routers and firewalls. There’d be a lot of fat commissions going around from such a deal. With such commisions,
  3. Somebody could then buy Facebook

Just don’t forget who thought of it, OK?

Manuel Quezon’s essential links

Blogger and newspaper columnist Manuel Quezon III has compiled this list of essential links for people who want to help in the wake of this disaster:

  1. Where and how to donate
  2. Report a problem
  3. Report a missing or found person
  4. Contribute to / update the disaster management forum
  5. Volunteer for the Sahana Disaster Management System


Since the typhoon hit on Saturday, Sep 26, I’ve been interviewed by several media organizations: twice by BBC, once by Canadian Broadcasting Corp TV news and finally by al-Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa (who’s a friend).

I haven’t found links for the last two interviews, in fact the only one CBC put up was an interview with a dull-sounding foreigner here in Manila; hey thanks CBC, if you told me you wouldn’t use the clip I wouldn’t have stayed up til midnight for you.

But BBC did kindly post links:

My interview on  BBC World Service (it’s in the first five minutes)

Interview with BBC Live Five’s Up All Night (it’s at the 3:05:20 mark)

Manila drowns

Yesterday Sept 26, Metro Manila got a taste of what towns and villages in distant provinces regularly suffer: it was deluged by rains brought by typhoon Ondoy. Within a few hours, the metropolis received the amount of rain it usually gets in an entire month: at least 45 people died, entire sections of the city were submerged, houses were swept into the river, people took to their rooftops or sheltered in the upper stories of their houses. Traffic was paralyzed — one commuter said it took her 10 hours to travel a stretch of EDSA that normally takes at most an hour to cover.

Many huddled  in their rooftops, shivering in the rain, for more than 12 hours, awaiting rescue by a government that later revealed it could only muster THIRTEEN rubber boats for the entire city.  It also turns out that government officials, to prevent nearby dams from overflowing, opened the sluice gates, contributing to the massive inundation.

Pedestrian underpass in Makati business district. The underpass is about 20 feet deep

Pedestrian underpass in Makati business district. Underpass is about 20 feet deep