Murder as perennial as grass

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Unless the Aquino administration rouses the Philippine National Police from its lethargy and forces it to find and investigate the killers of journalists; unless it lights a fire under the Department of Justice to see to their prosecution; and unless it does something to encourage the courts to try them within this lifetime, it will go down in history as among the worst regimes, if not the worst ever, for press freedom and human rights.

The reality of impunity — the exemption from punishment of wrong-doers — is what drives the continuing killing of journalists, human rights defenders, and political and social activists. He might have pledged during the 2010 campaign that he would stop the murder of journalists, end extrajudicial killings, and defend human rights. But Benigno Aquino III now has the dubious distinction of presiding over an administration that has outdone the three-year record of every administration after Marcos, including that of his mother Corazon Aquino, in the number of work-related murders of journalists and media workers.

Twenty-one journalists were killed during the six years of the Corazon Aquino presidency, or a yearly average of three during her entire term. Her record was 16 for the first three years of her administration, or an average of five per year. Eighty journalists and media workers, including 32 in the Ampatuan Massacre, were killed during the nine-year watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Her three-year record was 19, or an average of six per year. That of her predecessor Joseph Estrada, who was in office for two and a half years, was six, or three per year, while that of Fidel Ramos was 12 for the six years when he was in office, or an average of two per year.

The Aquino administration record for the three years during which it has been in power now stands at 21, or an average of seven journalists killed per year.

Two broadcasters were recently killed within a week of each other. Joash Dignos of Bukidnon was killed on Nov. 29, and Michael Diaz Melo on Dec. 6. If the Dec. 11 murder of Rogelio Butalid of Tagum City’s Radyo Natin turns out to be work-related, it would raise the Aquino III record to 22. Another broadcaster, Jonavin Villalba of Iloilo, was ambushed on Dec. 10, but survived despite several gunshot wounds. He would otherwise have been the 23rd. This year was particularly problematic, with 10 journalists killed so far and counting, while the instances of harassments against journalists surged to 66.

If no progress is made in the prosecution of the killers of journalists and the masterminds behind them, particularly those in the Ampatuan Massacre, and the number of killings continues to escalate, the country could see even more journalists killed by 2016 when Mr. Aquino leaves office.

As if to give the lie to his Nov. 22 statement, the killing of Dignos occurred exactly a week after Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma declared the end of impunity during a news conference on the eve of the 4th anniversary of the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre. The murder of Melo occurred 18 days after.

The most recent killings have raised the number of journalists and media workers killed since 1986 to 139, out of which only 11 cases have been partially resolved with the conviction and sentencing of the gunmen.

Except in the Ampatuan Massacre trial, in which eight members of the Ampatuan clan are among the principal accused, no suspected mastermind has been arrested and tried. Despite a reissued warrant, the two alleged masterminds in the killing of Tacurong City journalist Marlene Esperat, who was killed in 2005 in her own home, have eluded arrest, while the suspected masterminds in the 2010 killing of Palawan environmental advocate Gerry Ortega have been dropped from the case.

Meanwhile, some 66 incidents of physical assaults, whimsical and politically motivated libel suits, death threats, being banned from coverage of public events, arbitrary detention, and other harassments against journalists occurred this year alone. From 2011 to 2013, in a departure from the common pattern of the killings’ being mostly limited to rural communities, three journalists based in the National Capital Region were killed, while high profile ABS-CBN broadcaster Ces Drilon received a series of death threats via cellphone messages.

The surge in the number of killings is disturbing enough, indicating a level of lawlessness only slightly below that of failing states like Iraq and Somalia, but the last three developments are clear indications of the increasing boldness of those who would silence journalists. That only 11 cases out of 139 over the last 27 years have been resolved, and only partially at that, while only in one case (the Ortega murder) have the trigger man and his accomplice been convicted out of the 21 since Aquino III came to power, can only suggest to those who would kill journalists that they can, quite literally, get away with murder.

The same message is being sent to those who kill political activists, reformist local officials, crusading lawyers and judges, critical scientists, and clergymen and women engaged in environmental protection and other issues. The human rights group Karapatan has documented over 150 extrajudicial killings of such individuals that, in addition to the murder of journalists, have occurred since 2010, while hundreds more have been forcibly “disappeared,” and dozens arbitrarily detained and tortured.

To begin the process of stopping both the killing of journalists and the extra judicial killings that as State policy are a component of its anti-“insurgency” program, the Aquino administration could curb the power of local warlords by dismantling their private armies whose members are mostly sourced from State security forces, and by disciplining the police and military towards actually respecting human rights.

In most of the killings of journalists, policemen as well as military officers and men have been implicated. In the Ampatuan Massacre, among the 197 accused are 70 police and military men. Military personnel have similarly been accused of carrying out the extra judicial killing of human rights defenders and other activists.

While it is possible for the Aquino administration to disband the paramilitaries and impose some discipline among the police and military, it probably will not. And therein lies the reason why, despite the Aquino regime’s condemnation of the most recent killings of journalists, and despite its creating a task force similar to its predecessor administration’s Task Force Usig and Task Force Newsman, the killings are likely to continue. It is the State policy of publicly condemning while arming the private armies, and the collusion between warlord power and security forces that have made the murder of journalists and activists as perennial as grass in these isles of fear.

Data on the killing of journalists are from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility database on the killing of journalists and its PJR Reports online web site.

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

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