COMMENTARY – Journalist Killings: A Policy of Indifference

Bangkok — A day after Fernando Batul, a radio broadcaster in Palawan, was shot to death by gunmen, Justice Secretary Raul Gon-zalez announced that that the government would allow journalists to bear arms for their protection. Published in The Nation, the report of the Agence France-Presse quoted Gon-zalez: “Do they want to get bodyguards? Do they want to carry firearms? We will allow them to carry firearms to protect themselves.”

The statements would be merely silly or stupid, if these were not so grievously offensive. So long silent on the issue of the journalist killings, the Arroyo government’s announced policy measure to address the conti-nuing violence against members of the press is redundant as many journalists already carry guns, applying for permits like many other Filipinos who feel the need to arm themselves for their protection.

Coming from the Cabinet minister in charge of the justice portfolio, the pronouncements trivialize what has been viewed as a grave scandal in the inter-national community of press freedom advocates. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked the Philippines as second only to Iraq as zone of conflict and includes the country in its count of the world’s “most dangerous assign-ments.” Media watch groups abroad together with national organizations have long inquired into what needs to be done to stop the attacks on Philip-pine journalists.

The Arroyo government, however, does not seem to share the concern.
The killing of journalists in the country that boasts of the freest press in Asia has always been difficult to understand and to explain. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) first investigated the killings in 1992. It has since kept a database, researching the background of cases. There were journalists killed even as demo-cratic space expanded during the Aquino administration. A variety of motives and causes suggested perpetrators other than the military or police who were the usual suspects impressed in the mind by the experience of Martial Law.

I did not think then that the killings were part of official policy to suppress dissent and to silence critics. Rather, I saw the attacks on reporters as sympto-matic of the prevailing environ-ment of violence and lawlessness in Philippine society. The press community is unusually large in the country. They make a vocal and visible presence and become vulnerable targets. With the failure of the police and the courts to establish the rule of law and to enforce it, the endemic paucity of resources for investigation and prosecution has made a bad situation worse. The killings are part of a systemic failure, another shameful reflection of the national “culture of impunity.”

But the numbers have continued to escalate. Batul is the 10th to be killed in a span of less than two years from 2005. Meanwhile, almost a hundred activists identified with the Left have been reported slain.

Recent developments urge a review of the situation and a reconsideration of my initial judgment. The statements of Gonzalez, Executive Order 464 and Presidential Proclamation 1017, the moves to intimidate the media during the state of emergency, the surveillance tactics and proposed guidelines on media conduct now constitute evidence of a sinister position taken by the administration and an attitude toward the treatment of critical groups that should raise public alarm.

There is not much to suggest that the administration cares about the rights of its critics, even the fundamental right to life. It has given no sign of any intention to do anything about the pro-blem, no plan to study, to review cases or to formulate a strategy to address the issue. After talking about it in Malacañang, all they had to say was, “Let them protect themselves.”

Perfunctory effort
Because of pressure from media groups some time ago, the Philippine National Police did form a task force to look into the media cases. But it was perfunctory, doing the paper work but making no difference in the numbers. I have not heard of any effort to look into the killings of human rights advo-cates, of community organizers, of forest guards, of lawyers, and of judges involved in sensitive cases who have also been victims of violence.

With no leads yet on the murder of Batul, Secretary Gonzalez went on to criticize “fly-by-night journalists” and media members who abuse the power of the press. He went on to say, “You have to be sure of what is the reason (for the killing). There are media men killed in a drinking spree or because of a woman, so what does that have to do with his work?” We can only read this as a policy statement on the issue, quickly shifting the blame to erring members of the press.

For purposes of docu-mentation and analysis, CMFR checks out the cases, interviewing the police, family, employers and co-workers about work, histories and probable motives. CMFR’s database classifies those killed “in the line of duty.” The 10 journalists or media practitioners slain since 2005 were killed because of their work, making a total of 27 such cases during President Arroyo’s watch. These numbers are hardly piddling. And yet, media groups’ efforts to get Malacañang to respond with resolve to these killings when a former journalist, Rigoberto Tiglao, was chief of staff, came to nothing.

If the government is not actively pursuing a policy of violence, its demonstrated inertia effectively sustains such violence as a useful instrument to eliminate activists and to silence critics. Speaking on the deaths of members of the legal Left, Human Rights Chair Purificacion Quisumbing blames government for the failure to protect the lives of its citizens. The latest report of Amnesty Inter-national has done the same.

CMFR observed early on how many of the cases were left in police files unsolved, languishing or lost in the courts. Two recent cases have been set apart from the pattern, but with little help from government.

Two witnesses immediately came forward to identify the killer of Edgar Damalerio in 2002. Damalerio was the fourth journalist killed in the city of Pagadian and the third to be killed in the line of duty in the city. The witnesses made it a landmark case and compelled several media organizations to join together and help so that a case could be filed. The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, Inc. (FFFJ) launched a media campaign to press for the capture of the suspect when he escaped while under police custody. Nevertheless, it took the local police over a year to re-arrest the man. Seeking more neutral ground for the trial, FFFJ filed a petition with the Supreme Court for the transfer of the case to Cebu. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses was killed before the case could be moved. Working with the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program, FFFJ helped to evacuate the remaining witnesses and family members, providing funds for the operation. In the killing of Marlene Esperat in Sultan Kudarat in 2005, FFFJ has similarly assisted in the transfer of the case to Cebu, providing for out-of-pocket expenses of the lawyers who took the case pro bono.

Many cases do not go to trial because no witnesses come forward to identify suspects, for obvious reasons. Most of the victims worked in provincial community-based publications, radio and TV stations. It is strange how the police can be so clueless about where to find suspects. People in a community know these things, and the police should know even better. Clearly, there are powerful and influential people who want cases closed and archived. The perpetrators cannot remain unknown unless there is willful disinterest or neglect to find them.

Thus, the “culture of impunity” provides a comfort zone for assailants and their masterminds. The culture of impunity allows mechanisms for killings to go unpunished. The price for shooting a journalist can be quite cheap if the hired goons are assured that they will not get caught. If the government does not undertake extraordinary measures to pursue the killers of journalists and activists, it is effectively tolerating and, at one level, facilitating the killings.

It is time to ask: Is the “culture of impunity” a matter of policy?

Melinda Quintos de Jesus is executive director of CMFR. CMFR is also the secretariat of FFFJ.

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