Reporters Without Borders on the Philippine press:More Murders and a New Enemy
Despite new arrests of murderers, the autho-rities failed to stem the wave of vio-lence against journalists. At least six were killed in 2006. And the press also found itself facing a new enemy: Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of President Gloria Maca-pagal Arroyo, who took out a raft of defamation suits.
While her husband was lodging “defamation” com-plaints against more than 40 journalists, President Arroyo said, on Nov. 18 2006, that her government was “respectful of press freedom, an institution of Philippines democracy.” On the same day, journalist Ellen Tordesillas, a stern critic of the government received an email warning her: “Your days are numbered.” Murders, assaults, arrests, abusive law suits, and censorship were the hallmark of 2006 in this country.
The avalanche of suits brought by the “first gentleman” in a country where defamation is still a criminal offense, puts the liberty of scores of journalists in danger. In October, eight members of the management of privately-owned daily Malaya narrowly escaped arrest after publishing an editorial accusing the head of state’s husband of “corruption.” In a total of 43 suits brought against journalists, Jose Miguel Arroyo claimed a total of P70 million (almost 1.1 million euros or $1.4 million) in damages. In December, journalists’ organizations counter-attacked by bringing a complaint in their turn against the President’s husband for violating press freedom and demanding one peso in damages for each Philippine citizen (around $1.74 million)*.
Faced with a rebellion within the army, the President declared a state of emergency on Feb. 24, 2006. Several generals were locked up and the crackdown extended to the opposition press. Police searched The Daily Tribune on the same day and seized documents.
At least six journalists were murdered while doing their job in 2006, the majority of them were presenters on one of the country’s very numerous AM radio stations. In the Philippines, local stations sell airtime to private individuals known as “block timers” who can then put out their own commercial or political programs. Rolly Cañete, gunned down in January 2006 in the city of Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur province in the south, presented programs on local radio on behalf of a deputy and his wife, the province’s governor.
Hitmen sometimes show extreme determination. Fer-nando Batul, commentator on dyPR radio was shot dead on his way to work on Palawan Island, southwest of Manila in May. A few weeks earlier, he narrowly escaped a murder bid in which two grenades were thrown at his home. His assailants had left a letter advising him to “hold your tongue.” A police officer was arrested a few days later and the instigators were reportedly local politicians.
The local press can also be targeted in the same way. Orlando Mendoza, 58, editor of the newspaper Tarlac Patrol in Luzon province was murdered in April after receiving threats from a paramilitary group.
The Arroyo administration has been widely criticized for its inability to act against the murderers of opposition and human rights activists. Some politically committed journalists have been victims of this political violence as in the case of Maricel and George Vigo who were killed in Mindanao in June. Community media defending the rights of peasant farmers were also targeted. In July, armed men torched a building housing Radyo Cagayano, one of whose presenters, a peasant union leader, was killed a few months later. The military is suspected of being behind these attacks.
Police and the courts have chalked up some successes in their struggle against the murderers of journalists. Four men found guilty of the murder of Marlene Esperat, a journalist specializing in corruption, who was killed in March 2005, were sentenced to life imprisonment. But collusion inside the justice system allowed those who ordered the killing to escape court for the time being.
On the other hand, a former police officer suspected of being the “brains” behind the June 2004 murder of journalist Elpidio Binoya, was acquitted in March. The regional court in General Santos, southern Philippines, said that there was insufficient evidence against him.
There were at least 25 murder attempts and assaults and 10 arrests during 2006. Censorship also bit deeper, often because of local politicians seeking to silence opposition media. In March the mayor of Valencia City, south of Manila, ordered the closure of radio dxVR, some of whose presenters were close to their political opponents. In the capital, a program of reports on ABS-CBN was banned by the regulatory authority over the controversial subject of drug use in the country.
Finally the authorities in Aurora province, northeast of Manila, failed to mount any search for radio presenter Joey Estriber, a specialist on environmental issues, who was kidnapped in March. He had spoken out against illegal logging in the region.—Reporters Without Borders 2007 report on the Philippine press
* There are actually 11 suits brought against 46 journalists. Due to financial constraints needed for the filing fee, the plaintiffs lowered the damages to $12.5 million.
Reporters Without Borders is a Paris-based international group that advocates press freedom.