No illusions

NO ONE should be under the illusion that every journalist killed for what he or she reported or commented on was fighting for freedom, for principle, for public interest, or even for the truth, although some of those who have been killed since 1986 indeed died for their advocacies as citizens and as journalists.

Sultan Kudarat’s Marlene Esperat was killed for exposing the diversion of P728 million in fertilizer funds to the 2004 campaign by Department of Agriculture employees and executives. Palawan’s Gerry Ortega was killed for his environmental advocacy and his opposition to large-scale mining. Pagadian City’s Edgar Damalerio was killed for his consistent advocacy of community interests, in behalf of which he exposed official wrongdoing in one of the most dangerous places in the Philippines.

But some media practitioners and journalists were killed because they were paid partisans of a local politician, or were commenting and reporting in favor of other limited, rather than public, interests. They were correctly perceived as biased and unfair and were hardly thought to be ethical or even accurate.

No responsible media advocacy organization has ever argued that a journalist should not have been killed because he or she was ethical, principled, accurate or an authentic asset to the public’s right to information and fair comment. CMFR for example, only mentions what the journalist’s advocacy was if he or she had any, and what his or her colleagues’ and the community’s opinion on what its possible connection to his or her murder could be. Some individuals in the media, however, have gone to the extent of holding up some slain journalists as role models, without looking into the particular circumstances of the slain.

This is apparently what happened in the aftermath of the recent killing of broadcast blocktimer Nilo Baculo, whom some of his colleagues have described as a crusader against illegal drugs. But Catholic priest and environmental advocate Fr. Edwin Gariguez claimed that Baculo was a partisan of mining interests and was involved in organizing a group that he used to help a mining company obtain an environmental compliance certificate from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The subtext of Fr. Gariguez’ claim is that Baculo was in the pay of the mining company.

If Fr. Gariguez’ accusation is true—and he claims to have the documents to prove it—this would not be the first time that a journalist used his access to the media in behalf of business and political interests in exchange for monetary or other gain, nor is it likely to be the last.

Corruption is endemic and deeply rooted in the media for a number of reasons, among which is economic need and greed. The practice of blocktiming also makes practitioners particularly vulnerable; too often is it a career path deliberately taken by some practitioners to make money by defending and advancing the economic or political agenda of a group or individual. In some instances the policy of some media organizations of not paying journalists salaries and instead encouraging them to earn through advertising commissions also leads to conflicts of interest and the betrayal of the public right to accurate and fair reports, analysis, and commentary.

Corruption, professional failings and conflicts of interests are realities known throughout the media and press community, and the knowledge should alert everyone to the possibility that a slain journalist may not have been acting out of principle while on the job. But neither is the opposite tendency of dismissing some killings as unworthy of public outrage because the slain was corrupt or even incompetent appropriate. Some critics have even gone to the extent of suggesting that the slain got what he or she deserved.

These critics miss the point. The killing of anyone whether journalist or not for whatever reason including the most terrible crimes is unjustifiable. Not only has the death penalty been abolished in many countries; it has also been—so far—wisely suspended in the Philippines. And even to suggest that anyone deserves to be killed for bad or unethical journalism is to uphold an injustice: that of imposing a penalty that does not fit the crime.

But of even graver import is the impact on the press of the killing of any journalist. The news media are necessary instruments in providing the information and encouraging the debate necessary for good governance and democratization. Killing a journalist makes that task even more difficult by adding to the climate of lawless violence and instilling among other journalists fears that they too may be killed for what they report or comment on. The death of a journalist also diminishes humanity at large, and like the killing of nuns and priests, political activists and environmental advocates, human rights defenders, reformist officials, lawyers and judges, detracts by that much from any society’s claims of civilized existence.

No one should have any illusions about journalists and journalism in this country. But neither should anyone deny the negative impact of each death not only on the press and media, but on Philippine society as well, and the urgent necessity to put an end to the killings. That necessity becomes even more urgent when the slain journalist was ethically compliant and was killed for doing his duty of providing the public the accurate and fair information and analysis it needs.