Ending impunity is a state responsibility

“BIZARRE” WAS how an American journalist, who’s in the Philippines to write an article on the killing of journalists, described what he’s finding out, among them:

(1) The Bureau of Immigration’s blacklisting nine Hong Kong journalists on the basis of a National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) claim that they constitute a “threat to public safety.”

The blacklist was eventually lifted, but the fact that it was even considered was, in the context of the country’s reputed commitment to democracy, shocking enough for the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) to issue a statement decrying the blacklisting, and for the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) to say, in a letter for President Benigno Aquino III, that the ban was “a serious contravention of the International Declaration of Human Rights and a blemish on the reputation of the Philippines as a democratic nation.”

That FOCAP and the Philippine journalism community found out about it a few days before the fifth anniversary of the November 29, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre made it both shocking and ironic.

(2) A direct assault on the Constitutional guarantee of press freedom, the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) banning the media coverage of the ongoing Ampatuan Massacre Trial since August 14 this year, and the fact that the trial itself has lasted all of four years.

(3) The murder of a witness for the prosecution, again a few days before the fifth anniversary of the massacre.

(4) The killings themselves, which since 1986 have already claimed the lives of 145 journalists and media workers. And

(5) The seeming lack of a sense of urgency on the part of  government agencies and the conflict between President Aquino’s campaign promise to defend human rights and his downplaying the killings, despite their implications on press freedom and democracy.

None of the US journalist’s observations have escaped those sectors of the Philippine press and media community that for years have been campaigning for an end to the killing of journalists and media workers.

As bizarre as the situation these realities describe already is, what’s even more ironic is the involvement of some State agencies in the infringement of the right to free expression and press freedom, and, in several cases including the Ampatuan Massacre, their personnel’s being themselves implicated in the killings.

Such State agencies as the police and the military have not only been in the sidelines, doing little or nothing to protect journalists from harm; they have also been involved in the suppression of press freedom and the right to information either through the use of their coercive powers, for example by  banning the coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, or by some of their members’ direct involvement in the killing of journalists and media workers.

Seventy police and military personnel are among those accused of various forms of involvement in the Ampatuan Massacre, whether as responsible for blocking the path of the Mangudadatu convoy, for being among those who actually did the killings, or for being among the planners of the Massacre. Fourteen police and military personnel are also among the suspects in other killings.

The Ampatuan Massacre in fact occurred in 2009 in the context of what has been emboldening the killers: the culture of impunity, or the exemption from punishment of wrongdoers. The persistence of that culture is evident in State 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.

Under these conditions, the killing of journalists is likely to continue, even as 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 them the training of journalists in assuring their own safety and security, and 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 in the context of  what amounts to State indifference towards the imperative of putting an end to the killings.

While there is as yet no State policy to “neutralize” journalists, State indifference has been the most vital factor in the persistence of impunity. That has to change. Not only do the agencies of the Philippine State have to stop infringing on press freedom; they also have to seriously assume the core responsibility of protecting not only journalists, but all citizens. Only then can the killings end.