Media Ignore the Pattern of Political Violence

WHEN THE Commission on Human Rights (CHR) released a statement on September 12 raising concerns about the spate of attacks against officials in the run-up to the upcoming Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections (BSKE) on October 30, it barely scratched the surface of the increasing violence. The CHR, which monitored the killing of four local officials, said the incidents “manifest the rising numbers of election-related violence as the 2023 barangay and SK elections approach.”

But CMFR’s monitoring of online news from January to September 2023 showed that in those nine months, at least 63 incumbent local officials were victims of 59 separate attacks around the country. Media picked up the CHR statement, but reports tended to focus on these as incidents as simply a matter of crime. The reports failed to capture the larger picture of the attacks and what these mean. 

Violence as Political Instrument 

CMFR monitored 27 online news platforms to count the number of attacks on local officials from 155 news reports. 

From January 1 to September 20, 2023, with just a little more than a month before the barangay elections, these online platforms, CMFR found, reported at least 59 separate attacks. CMFR cross-checked the cases to avoid double counting. The violence took the form of shootings and bombings.

The 59 attacks left 63 victims, 28 of whom were barangay chairpersons. Of the 63, only 12 survived

The attack on Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo left a total of 10 dead but only four, including Degamo, were officials. Three were from the local government. The rest were civilians, security, and private staff. Degamo, as provincial governor, is so far the highest ranking victim.

The number of fatalities compared to survivors is chilling, with only 12 victims surviving their attacks, which is a high 81% rate of fatality

The modus operandi include the same instruments of political violence. Shootings made up 93% or 55 of the 59 attacks. Three attacks were bombings. The precise nature of the fatal attack against barangay councilor Salvador Olivares in Libon, Albay, was not specified in any report. 

The highest number of victims were barangay chairpersons, followed closely by councilors.

Aside from incumbent officials, news reports also noted at least three candidates who fell victim to separate violent attacks in the same monitoring period: Haron Dimalanis in Midsayap, North Cotabato; Rhoyden Flores in Pikit, North Cotabato; and Zeraphi Omar in South Upi, Maguindanao del Sur. While not included in the counts of officials, CMFR notes the vulnerability of those running for office. 

Problems in Coverage Persist

Coverage typically framed these attacks as crime stories and were relegated to crime and provincial sections of the news outlets. Reports also relied almost entirely on police sources of information, detailing time, date, location, nature of the attack, possible suspects, and potential motives. All reports cited the police, and few bothered to connect the many attacks as indicative of a disturbing election trend.

Initial reports of the killing of Degamo did not include the political context, the political rivalry involved, the removal of an official because his victory was reversed by the Commission on Elections (Comelec). 

Only in the case of the killings in one location did reports note the attacks as a trend, with four located in Libon, Albay. Alex Repato and Oscar Maronilla were both barangay chairpersons while Reliosa Mata and Salvador Olivares were barangay councilors. CHR has since started its own probe into this string of killings. 

The coverage thus far has been dominated by mere repetition of government data without analysis and interpretation, followed by updates that had no sufficient context and background. For example, in a September 25 article, GMA News Online reported the Philippine National Police’s announcement that they flagged 44 incidents of violence as potentially related to the BSKE. But the PNP validated only six of these as having any connection to the elections. The news accounts typically regurgitated official figures but did not clarify the criteria used to classify a case as election-related. 

Journalists have not made the effort to interrogate the relevant agencies (the PNP, Comelec, CHR) about their different definitions or their criteria for classifying a case. Reports did not note this significant lack of clarification in most, if not all, reports. For example, Comelec does not classify an incident as “election-related” unless it occurred within its prescribed election period. For the October 2023 BSKE elections, the official election period is from August 28 to November 29, 2023. 

Consequences of Political Violence

Coverage should include the impact of these different criteria by state agencies. In its statement, the CHR pointed out that in addition to the loss of lives and affliction of grave physical harm, the persistence of the political violence “undermines the electoral process and negatively impacts our democracy.” The “culture of fear” created by the attacks, it added, impedes the people’s right to make empowered decisions. 

With two elections on schedule in the next 12 months, media need to report these cases as political violence or election-related attacks, not as ordinary criminality. These attacks should be treated and discussed, presented and framed as threats, if not a direct deterrent, to this democratic exercise. A climate of political violence robs voters of their freedom to choose their leaders.