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Filipinos are under siege. Not by an external enemy, but by the enemy within.

Everyone is under threat, but among the most frequently targeted are journalists and media workers, who, since 1986, have found their community increasingly at risk.

The Aquino administration’s predecessor still holds the record as far as the killing of journalists is concerned. Eighty journalists, or an average of nine per year, were after all killed for their work during the almost decade-long reign — one hesitates to call it by any other name, her “election” in 2004 being tainted by allegations of fraud — of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The same regime also holds the post-Marcos era record in extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances, which by 2010 had breached the 1,000 mark.

But because 18 journalists and media workers have been killed for their work since 2010 (an average of six per year), when Benigno Aquino III assumed the presidency, the current administration’s record has already surpassed that of the Fidel Ramos presidency (11 killed over six years, or an average of two per year), and the brief tenure of Joseph Estrada (six over three years, or an average of two per year).

And yet the Aquino administration has been in power for only three years and has three more to go. One wonders if in its last three years it will finally do something about the undeniable surge in criminal violence in a country it insists on describing as on the mend and on its way to economic tigerhood, or even, pretty please, about the killing of journalists.

Granted that it seems unlikely that it could have, by 2016, approached, equaled, or even surpassed the Arroyo record since the latter includes the killing of 32 journalists (and 26 others) in the Ampatuan Massacre of 2009. But that should be little comfort to the kin of the broadcaster killed while on his way to work — or the family of the advertising executive waylaid in upscale Bonifacio Global City.

Although the latter was for a day or so the stuff of news reports, together with the most recent killing of journalists that crime has also been relegated to the margins of public attention. The public is so used to violence it is shocked, if at all, only momentarily even by the worst crimes, and eventually shrugs off such incidents as inescapable facts of life in these isles of fear.

The undeniable escalation in the number of journalists killed — seven occurred in the last three months — is disturbing enough. But as troubling is the increase and variety of harassments and intimidation to which journalists have been subjected. Since 2012, the number of libel suits, physical attacks, and death threats as well as attempts on the lives of journalists has visibly risen. Some journalists have been subjected to such forms of legal restraint as finding them in contempt of court. Other journalists have been barred from covering events of public interest. Some 60 such incidents occurred in 2013 alone.

The inevitable question is why journalists are harassed, threatened, physically assaulted and even killed. Because among those killed were tabloid columnists and blocktimers, some have argued that the reason for the killings was the victims’ use of the power a column or a radio program endowed them with to favor this or that politician or other parties with a stake in how the public perceives them.

Abuse of the freedoms of the press and of expression protected by the Constitution, and unprofessional and unethical conduct do occur. But like the penalty for libel, which can include imprisonment for six years, murder is hardly commensurate to the offense of bad, biased, unfair, inaccurate or even malicious comment and reporting.

There are means in place for those abused by the media, among them alerting the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas or the press councils, criticism via media monitoring publications, and complaints to the managements of the media organizations in which the offender is either employed, or, in the case of blocktimers, whose broadcast facilities he or she uses. As skeptical as some may be about these means of redress, some practitioners have nevertheless been suspended or even fired, and the contracts of blocktimers rescinded for various offenses.

Criticism, discussion and debate, being sanctioned for bad practice, and even the filing of libel suits despite the infirmities of the libel law, are the only acceptable means of correcting media offenses and abuse and are after all the legitimate means of redress in a country that calls itself a democracy.

But those who mastermind and carry out the killings, physical attacks and death threats as a first response against journalists are not interested in correcting press and media errors, but in silencing criticism. These are the individuals and groups involved in the corruption and criminality that most of those killed were exposing through news reports, columns and analyses.

Physical attacks on individual journalists are also acts of violence against the free press as a necessary pillar of democracy, and the continuing killings are damaging the capacity of the press to contribute to the making of the informed public a democratic society needs. But the violence against journalists is also occurring in the context of the persistence of, and noticeable surge in crime and violence.

Whether in the form of such common crimes as rapes, murders, robberies, kidnapping for ransom, or the extrajudicial killings that have claimed the lives of lawyers and judges, local officials, political activists, nuns and priests, and those other sectors and individuals engaged in exposing corruption, defending human rights, and protecting the environment, the inability of the justice system to punish the wrongdoers is what drives the continuing killing of journalists.

It doesn’t help that the President of the Republic has gone out of his way to denounce the press for its lapses, most of which, responsible practitioners agree, do occur. But while criticism of the press does help, when coming from the head of state it also sends a message to everyone, from the city councilor who prevents coverage of a municipal council session to the policeman who hits a broadcaster with his own microphone, to the hired goons who shoot a tabloid columnist dead, that their deeds are likely to go unpunished.

They already have ample enough reason to believe it even without Mr. Aquino’s say-so. Only 10 killers of journalists out of 130 cases have been punished. No mastermind has been tried to date. No one has been penalized for planning or carrying out the extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances that like the killing of journalists are continuing in the communities where the justice system is weakest. And like plunders, murderers do literally get away with it.

Besieged by violence and crime and surrounded by record-breaking corruption, more and more Filipinos are leaving even for countries in conflict, and once there, refuse to return home. In Syria or Lebanon you at least know who the enemy are.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
September 12, 2013

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