Media Killings Prompt Journalists to Become Activists

The burning of an ABS-CBN van last January 11 reflects the state of Philippine mass media. Various interest groups try to harass and intimidate journalists, even to the point of silencing them forever. It is important at this point to reiterate the importance of social involvement among journalists in order to not only stop the killings but also to effect social change. (This is a shortened version of the author’s paper presented at the faculty colloquium of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication last January 12.)


Are journalists becoming activists? One may say that they have already assumed that role, judging by the various media groups’ decision to take to the streets the issue of the killing of journalists. Just like activists, however, a deeper understanding of the media situation is important to know what must be done to nip in the bud the culture of impunity.

The statistics on the killing of journalists are alarming. Data from the Philippine Movement for Press Freedom (PMPF) show that 34 journalists were killed from 1972 to 1986 during the Marcos dictatorship. The succeeding administrations of Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo saw the number rising to 62 (i.e., as of December 1, 2004), according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). It is interesting to note that since Macapagal-Arroyo became president in 2001, 26 journalists have been killed, 13 of them in 2004 alone.

In its pooled media statement last December 9, the NUJP argued, “There has been no single conviction for a journalist’s murder since 1986. And the killers of our colleagues are getting bolder. In at least three recent killings – that of Bombo anchor Herson Hinolan in Kalibo, Aklan; of Freeman reporter Allan Dizon of Cebu, and of Guru Press reporter Stephen Omaois in Kalinga – the dastardly acts were followed by gloating calls and more death threats to the newsrooms. The climate of impunity is such that murder of a journalist also sparks a rash of death threats in other regions.”

According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Philippines has the second highest number of journalists killed in 2004. Iraq has the highest number with 25 journalists killed, two of them for still unconfirmed motives. (See Table 1)

This has been the case in 2004, despite a discrepancy in the number of journalists killed in the Philippines as documented by CPJ and NUJP. The CPJ listed only 8 Filipino journalists confirmed killed, with another three journalists killed for unconfirmed motives, for a total of 11. The NUJP, on the other hand, had 13.

The slight difference in the number may be explained by the CPJ’s policy of listing only journalists who “either died in the line of duty or were deliberately targeted for assassination because of their reporting or their affiliation with a news organization.” The NUJP’s list, on the other hand, contains journalists “who were killed – or were most likely killed – because of their journalism work.” (italics mine) The NUJP qualifies further, “In cases where it is not clear whether the death was work-related, or when the authorities could not ascertain the motives behind the killing, NUJP shall assume that the killing was work-related, unless future evidence points to the contrary.”

The NUJP’s data show that 62 journalists were killed from 1986 to 2004, or more than three deaths yearly over the said period. During the administration of Corazon Aquino (1986 to 1992), the journalists killed numbered 17. The administration of Fidel Ramos (1992 to 1998) saw the number slightly decreasing to 14. During the shortened regime under Joseph Estrada (1998 to 2001), the journalists killed were 5. From President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s ascension to power in January 2001 until December 2004, the number of journalists killed rose to 26. (See Table 2)

Based on NUJP data, 28 out of 62 journalists killed from 1986 to 2004 came from Mindanao, with Luzon a close second with 27. (See Table 3) Eighty-seven percent of those killed were based outside the National Capital Region (NCR).

According to form of media, around 52 percent of journalists killed were radio journalists. Print and TV journalists, meanwhile, comprised roughly 39 percent and five percent respectively. There was one online journalist and two journalists straddling both print and radio. (See Table 4)

An Alternative Framework

It is important to have an alternative framework in analyzing violence against media, a departure from the perception that these are merely incidental occurrences and the claim that some journalists were murdered due to their corrupt practices.

In his analysis of the rising trend of killing of journalists, PNP Director General Edgar Aglipay was quoted as saying that journalists must practice responsible journalism in order to protect themselves. This statement implies that most, if not all, journalists killed were irresponsible and thus caught the ire of the people or groups that they may have offended in their reportage.

Such an opinion which could be shared by other media consumers is reflective of the general public’s indifference to the plight of journalists. There are those who think that they deserve to die anyway for their disservice to the readers. In other words, they had it coming.

This does not mean that one should turn a blind eye to the lapses of journalists in the performance of their work. While an eroded credibility in the eyes of their peers and, more importantly, their readers is a punishment by itself, an appropriate sanction could be either suspension or dismissal from the media organization they work for, depending on the gravity and frequency of the offense. Indeed, erring journalists deserve to be penalized but not with death.

The PNP has also suggested two remedies to put a stop to the killing of journalists: the arming of threatened journalists with weapons for self-defense and the institution of a national ID system. These, however, were criticized by the NUJP for failing to address the fundamental problem of bringing the perpetrators to justice. In its various statements, the NUJP stressed that journalists are not asking for special treatment. They are merely asking the PNP to do its job in investigating, arresting and detaining those responsible for the killing of journalists.

There are other recommendations made by concerned groups. Among these are the institution of field survival courses and the licensing of journalists. The first is meant to prepare journalists for any eventuality as they go about the practice of their profession while the second aims to professionalize media.

Of course, the first suggestion is well-taken, as groups like the NUJP and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) have taken steps to provide appropriate training programs which include media ethics, as well as hotlines where journalists can immediately communicate threats they receive.

The licensing of journalists, however, does not help professionalize media practice or, for that matter, deter the killing of journalists. In the final analysis, the government can use this to harass and intimidate journalists who write critical articles about the powers-that-be. Instead of promoting press freedom, the licensing of journalists can end up compromising it.
Breakdown of Peace and Order

The establishment of the PNP’s Task Force Newsman in the wake of the spate of the killing of journalists in 2004 was welcomed by various media groups. The task force, after all, seeks to monitor the progress of the investigation and regularly coordinates with media groups like the NUJP.

Even then, the move of the PNP reflects its inherent weakness to solve crimes and bring those responsible to justice. Under ordinary circumstances, there is no need for the police to set up a task force specific to the cases of killed journalists.

The situation of journalists, after all, is no different from that of mass leaders and community organizers who are said to be victims of state repression.

Just like the killing of journalists, the state of human rights violation in the country is alarming to say the least. Partial data compiled by the human rights alliance Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) in its 2004 Report on the Philippine Human Rights Situation show that there were 570 documented cases of human rights violations from January to November 2004 involving 9,924 individuals, 441 families, 476 households, and 42 communities.

Since Macapagal-Arroyo assumed office in January 2001, Karapatan documented 3,488 cases of human rights violations. These violations affected 193,871 individuals, 18,942 families, 608 households and 106 communities.

Evidences of Fascism

A deeper analysis of the facts surrounding the killing of journalists shows that, on a broader scale, fascism is quite evident in the ongoing violence against media.

According to initial investigations into the murder of selected journalists, the suspects occupy positions of power and influence. For example, police officers allegedly killed Edgar Damalerio and Roger Mariano in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Last year, barangay captains of their respective residences were suspected to have killed Arnnel Manalo and Ely Binoya.

Fascism refers to the use of brute force in quelling social unrest. The killing of journalists is the more glaring manifestations of the use of such force, but other forms of violence like harassment and intimidation by the powers-that-be must also be considered in analyzing the extent of fascism in the Philippines.

In his book Philippine Society and Revolution, Amado Guerrero stressed that the rise of fascism cannot be considered a sign of strength of a government. According to him, “It is in essence a show of despair and weakness…It shows that they have ceased to fool the people with words.”

This then relates to the social problem of bureaucrat capitalism in the Philippines which is said to be the basis of local fascism. To the uninitiated, bureaucrat capitalists build up or expand their wealth through the exercise of political power. In other words, it is in their interest to maintain the status quo and any attempt to threaten the existing social structures – say, reportage on graft and corruption which some of the killed journalists were doing at the time of their untimely death – must be stopped no matter what.

Reflective of National Situation

The current trend of violence against media shows that the plight of journalists is symptomatic of the national situation. That most of those killed were from the provinces only shows that the prevailing feudal and semi-feudal relations in the countryside are contributory to the fate of some provincial journalists there, particularly radio broadcasters who have caught the ire of certain members of the local elite.

It is necessary to stress at this point that there is no reason to believe the existence of a grand conspiracy to rid the country of critical journalists. At present, there is no evidence to prove that a single group or individual is behind all the murders.

However, this should not mean that they are totally unrelated occurrences. The cases, after all, have obviously something in common: They occurred in a situation where democracy was supposed to have been restored in 1986. However, the objective conditions that gave rise to human rights violations since time immemorial still remains despite the ouster of Marcos from power.

Clearly, the killing of journalists has both historical and material bases and should be analyzed in the context of the social turmoil. It does not come as a surprise that in recent years, various media groups have decided to undertake joint campaigns with cause-oriented groups in seeking justice for those who were subjected to various forms of violence against media.

Contexts and Contradictions

A clear understanding of the global, national and local situations demands the identification of the various contexts and contradictions happening in society. The challenge for journalists at this point is not just to expose the nuances of Philippine reality, but also to oppose any form of media repression if necessary.

The signs of the times are clear, and the contradictions are glaring. This is now the time where one’s nationalism is measured not only by how much he or she loves the country, but how much he or she despises government. One’s commitment is seen along the lines of how much he or she will do to challenge existing social structures. In this light, the journalist, in unity with his or her peers, should assume an activist’s role in opposing exploitation and oppression in the mass media.

Only then can violence against media be deterred, and only then can he or she find meaning in the chosen profession.

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