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.
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