Still a dangerous place

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

The facts simply do not support Malacañang’s contention that “since the triumph of the EDSA People Power revolution, the Philippines has become anew a bastion of freedom of expression and of the press.”

This grand declaration was part of a statement by Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr. — who, by using the word “anew,” also implied that the Philippines was such a “bastion” prior to the martial law period. Coloma was trying to refute the 2016 report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which early this week named the Philippines second after Iraq in the number of journalists killed for their work over the last 25 years.

IFJ said 146 journalists have been killed for doing their job since 1990 in the Philippines, compared to Iraq’s 309. Data from Philippine journalist and media watch groups vary, but they agree that the number since 1986 is in the neighborhood of 150 to 180. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the worst attack on journalists on record also occurred in the Philippines on Nov. 23, 2009, when 32 were killed while on their way to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy of a candidate for governor of Maguindanao province.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists removed the Philippines from its current list of countries where journalists were killed for their work in 2015. But Philippine media advocacy and journalists’ groups have established that at least three journalists were killed in the line of duty last year, out of a total of nine journalists killed. And a fourth killing in 2015 could also be work-related, although the motive for the killing on Nov. 21 of broadcaster Jose Bernardo in Quezon City, Metro Manila has not been established.

Broadcaster Cosme Maestrado, who survived an attempt on his life in 2011, was killed on Aug. 27, 2015 in Ozamis City, Misamis Occidental. Maestrado had been receiving death threats that clearly indicated that they were due to his work as a commentator over a local radio station. His fellow broadcasters were also certain that he was killed for this reason.

Earlier, on Aug. 18, print journalist Gregorio Ybañez was murdered in Tagum City, Davao del Norte. The president of the Davao del Norte Press and Radio-TV Club and at the time he was slain a columnist for a local newspaper, Ybañez had been using his column to publish information on an ongoing conflict between two factions fighting for control of the Davao del Norte Electric Cooperative.

Two gunmen shot and killed broadcaster Teodoro Escanilla in Barcelona town, Sorsogon province on Aug. 19. Escanilla anchored a program over a local radio station. He was also chair of a workers’ organization as well as spokesperson of the human rights group “Karapatan” (Rights). The police were unclear about the possible motive, but his colleagues suggested that his killing was due to his commentaries in addition to his involvement in the labor and rights groups.

The killing of journalists is taking place despite the restoration and enhancement of the constitutional guarantees of press freedom and free expression in 1987. As Coloma pointed out, there is officially “no prior restraint or internal security regulations that hinder the work of journalists” in the Philippines. But by instilling the fear among journalists that what they report can lead to their being murdered, the killings are a form of prior restraint.

There have also been a number of instances in which the Philippine police and military have made the task of journalists difficult and even dangerous by, among other means, putting them in the military order of battle, and labeling journalists groups as “enemies of the state.” Characteristically, the Aquino administration has done nothing to stop what amounts to an invitation for the “neutralization” of those so labeled.

Journalists have been killed for the work they do since the Corazon C. Aquino administration, during which 21 were killed. Eleven were slain during the Fidel V. Ramos presidency; six during Joseph E. Estrada’s less than three years in office; 83 during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year term; and 29 during the past five years of Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s six-year watch. Only a handful of perpetrators in 11 cases have been convicted, while no mastermind, except those accused of planning and ordering the Nov. 23, 2009 Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre have even been tried.

Despite these numbers, the Aquino administration, again speaking through Coloma, has the temerity to claim that it has “dismantled the machinery for impunity by putting in place governance reforms and prosecuting those implicated in the (Ampatuan) massacre.”

The IFJ report disagrees with that self-serving claim.

The IFJ in fact pointed out that Aquino III himself has been uninterested, unconcerned, and unsupportive — and has even minimized the extent of the killings and their impact on press freedom and free expression.

“On several occasions,” IFJ noted, “Aquino has implied that the killed journalists were to blame for their own deaths. Having the nation’s highest ranking official convey such sentiments only serves to create an environment where there is no importance or urgency in solving existing cases and putting a stop to other human rights violations.”

The kin of slain journalists who are still waiting for the killers and masterminds behind the murder of their husbands and fathers to be penalized would also contest the Aquino claim that it has dismantled “the machinery for (sic) impunity.” The trial of the accused in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre has proceeded in fits and starts, for example. The trial is now on its sixth year, but the court has only begun to hear the prosecution’s evidence.

Impunity simply means the perpetrators’ exemption from punishment — their quite literally getting away with murder in over 100 cases that have either become cold or have never been brought to court. Dismantling the “machinery for (sic) impunity” would mean tearing down the entire justice system whose egregious flaws, which include its failure to investigate and build cases competently, to even arrest suspected killers and masterminds, and to quickly and credibly resolve those few cases that do reach the courts, are responsible for State inability to punish the perpetrators and the brains behind them — and which encourage more killings as a result.

What has to be uprooted is the culture of impunity that has flourished in the entire justice system. Impunity has become part of the culture of a system that too often fails to punish wrong-doers, whether they’re involved in the killing of journalists or of political activists, human rights defenders, lumad, judges and lawyers, nuns and priests, or other citizens of this “vibrant democracy.”

The same culture of impunity includes State failure to even take into custody and to carry out the sentences of convicted felons — as well as the “confinement” of those in State custody in country club conditions, in which they can go in and out of their well-appointed “cells” complete with all the amenities of home.

The results are there for anyone except the willfully blind to see: rather than curbing crime including the murder of journalists, the system emboldens murderers, rapists, drug lords, kidnappers, human rights violators and other low-lifes to kill even more, to rape more, to abduct and torture more.

Despite Malacañang’s grandiose claims about “reforms,” the country is still a dangerous place for its residents — and for journalists, the second most dangerous place in the world in which to practice their craft.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
February 4, 2016

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