As if to mock the memory of the 32 journalists and media workers who were among the 58 men and women killed on Nov. 23, 2009, during the Ampatuan Massacre (named after the town where it took place), the Philippine National Police (PNP) has prevented media coverage of the trial of the alleged masterminds and killers since Aug. 14, or three months before the fifth anniversary of the massacre.
On practically the eve of the anniversary, on Nov. 18, the journalism community also learned that the Bureau of Immigration had blacklisted and was barring from entry into the country nine Hong Kong journalists for supposedly being “threats to public safety.”
The fifth year since the worst attack on journalists on record occurred was also marked by the murder of a witness for the prosecution, and in the context of the killing of, so far, four other journalists this year, which brought the total number of journalists and media workers killed for their work since 1986 to 145.
Where was the State in all this? It was on the sidelines, unable to prevent further killings. But it was also engaged in suppressing press freedom and the right to information.
The only seemingly bright spot in this dismal setting for the right to communicate, press freedom and access to information was the approval by the House of Representatives Public Information Committee of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill — although, don’t break out the champagne yet, the bill could still be amended to death in the House plenary and the bicameral committee of the House and the Senate.
The Ampatuan Massacre has been commemorated yearly by media and other groups as the lowest point so far in a putrid 28-year record: the killing of journalists and media workers which has been going on since 1986, when the institutions of democracy, among them a free press, were supposedly restored.
The massacre occurred in 2009 in the context of what has been emboldening the killers: the culture of impunity, or the exemption from punishment of wrongdoers rampant in the Philippines. The persistence of that culture is evident in the State’s failure to punish not only the killers of journalists but also those of human rights defenders, political and social activists, priests, reformist local officials, and judges and lawyers. Even worse is the complicity of State agencies themselves in some of the killings.
Every commemoration of the massacre since 2010 has demanded an end to the culture of impunity by bringing the killers and masterminds to justice. But of the dozens of cases against the killers of journalists, only 14 have resulted in the conviction of the killers and their accomplices.
No alleged mastermind except in the Ampatuan Massacre has even been tried, and every commemoration of the massacre has been marked by more killings as well as threats and harassments against journalists. In 2013, when six journalists were killed for their work, there were also 66 cases of politically motivated libel suits, physical assaults, death threats, and exclusion from the coverage of events of public interest. This year there were 23 such incidents and four work-related killings.
Because the killings and harassments constitute the worst possible attacks on press freedom, the ban on media coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, itself an attack on press freedom, is specially ironic. The bar on the entry into the country of the nine Hong Kong journalists was particularly offensive. Although Immigration did lift the ban, the fact that it was even imposed at all revealed the persistence, despite EDSA 1986, of the same mindless profiling of anyone who so much as asks the hard questions journalists are mandated to raise, as a “threat to public safety” that drove the repression during the martial law period.
As the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said in a letter to President Aquino, the blacklisting “is a serious contravention of the International Declaration of Human Rights and a blemish on the reputation of the Philippines as a democratic nation.” The HK journalists were, after all, blacklisted, albeit only temporarily, for no other offense than shouting questions at Benigno Aquino III in October 2013 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
But the ban, based on monitoring by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) of the journalists, should remind every journalist in this country that they face even worse perils from surveillance by the so-called intelligence agencies, upon whose orders critical journalists have been included in “orders of battle” as well as in lists of “enemies of the state,” thus justifying their harassment, exclusion from coverage, and eventual “neutralization.”
But if journalists, like human rights defenders, environmentalists, lawyers, judges and political activists, can be “neutralized,” so can the killers of journalists — although not by paying them back in the same coin, but through their conviction in numbers large enough to discourage further killings. Contributing immensely to that development would be the credible outcome of the Ampatuan Massacre trial. The reality, however, is that that’s not likely to happen soon: the most optimistic prediction of any conviction’s resulting from the trial is in two years’ time.
Meanwhile, the killing of journalists is likely to continue, the slow progress of the trial being rightly or wrongly interpreted by those who wish to silence journalists as a sign that they can, like the hundreds of other killers of journalists, escape punishment.
Both short- and long-term solutions have been proposed to stop the killings, among the most effective being, for the short term, the training of journalists in assuring their own safety and security, while, for the long term, earning the protection of the communities in which they work by being better at providing these communities the information and analyses relevant to their lives.
Both as well as other solutions that have been proposed obviously assign the responsibility for their own safety to journalists themselves. Equally obvious, however, is the imperative of sincere and pro-active State engagement in the protection of the fundamental right to free expression. Assuming that responsibility will first of all require a radical shift away from the martial-law-era mentality that sees the press as a threat rather than as an asset to democratization, and as an institution that needs to be controlled and restricted.
As we have seen since 1986 and as we again saw this year, while there is as yet no State policy to “neutralize” journalists, State indifference has nevertheless been a vital factor in the persistence of impunity. That has to change, and the Philippine State has to seriously assume the core responsibility of protecting not only journalists, but all citizens. Only in that context can the killings end.
Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Published in Business World
November 27, 2014