A Step Backward in the Campaign to End Impunity


AS THE world observes International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on November 2, the press community in the Philippines carves out a more extended period to recall the shame and scandal of the violence against journalists in the country. On November 23, the 8th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre reminds us of the vulnerability of media workers working in provinces where political warlords and their dynasties dominate their communities. The Philippines may not be alone in the failure to protect journalists, but its record is among the worst.  A total of 156 journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty since 1986.

In its 2017 Impunity Index, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines fifth among countries with a high ratio of unsolved media killings. Only 89 cases have reached the courts, of which only 17 have resulted in conviction. Eight cases were dismissed due to lack of evidence, eight were archived, and six trials led to the acquittal of the suspects. Most of the cases ended as cold cases and spot reports. Accused masterminds and killers of journalists and media workers remain free.

The case of Marlene Esperat, who was killed in 2005, illustrates the deep-rooted impunity in this country. Although the court had issued an arrest warrant in 2008, the masterminds who were named in the trial of the hired killer remain at large. The Ampatuan Massacre, in which 58 people, including 32 media workers, were killed, is still pending in court after eight years. Recorded as the bloodiest strike against journalists globally, the trial has not resulted in a single conviction.

From one administration to another, government attention and the search for solutions has remained erratic, if not distracted and indifferent, on occasion blaming the victims. The Duterte administration has not given any reason for optimism.

President Rodrigo Duterte, despite his apparent hostility towards the media, signed Administrative Order No. 1, or the creation of the Presidential Task Force for Media Security, to watch cases of violence against journalists. But the agency has not been given the resources to be able to address the challenge. So far, six media workers have been killed during Duterte’s presidency, four in the line of duty. But what can the task force do with the constant attacks and threats against the media, with some threats coming from the President himself?

Duterte’s habit of shaming journalists and news organizations in his public speeches surely heightens the dangers already faced by the Philippine media, as there are many who tend to follow his lead. Only in this administration has the kind of hate speech against reporters been heard, targeting those critical of the government’s programs and platforms. The dynamic can only further weaken the fourth pillar of democracy despite the legal framework that provides for the protection of the press as the Fourth Estate. The same habit may send signals to others that it is okay to harass or even kill journalists.

Impunity in the time of Duterte has gone from bad to worse, not just in the killing of journalists.

In his first year in office, the number of killings related to his war against illegal drugs rose to more than 13,000. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), there have been 6,225 drug-related deaths, 3,850 of these during police operations. Of the 10, 354 deaths under investigation, 2,290 may be drug-related. Men and women of all ages have fallen victim to the killing sprees. Suspected dealers, pushers and users were adjudged guilty by their gunmen, without benefit of trial.

The President encouraged the violence of this war, tolerating the rise of killings, in fact cheering the numbers showing so many dead as a sign of success, even expressing his moral support to, or promising to protect, law enforcers should they be involved in killing suspects in questionable circumstances. His vow to pardon cops who could be convicted for following his orders was uttered often enough to be erased from public memory by his denials. Surely those words were taken as a signal by those who had their self-interest to protect or the tendency to abuse their power no less than the President has your back.

The case of Zenaida Luz, a human rights advocate who was shot by policemen disguised as vigilantes in Gloria, Oriental Mindoro, and that of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr., who was killed in his prison cell, showed how lenient this administration is towards police officers who violate the law. The two suspects in Luz’s killing were granted bail on August 3 this year. Meanwhile, the policemen involved in Espinosa’s death have been reinstated.

When the government tolerates violence and speaks disparagingly of human rights, the state and its agencies nurture the culture of impunity. In such an environment, the challenge to create a counterculture of justice calls for the brave and courageous to take a stand.

Unfortunately, this task usually calls for journalists whose calling is to speak truth to power. These three weeks of November, may more Filipinos find the will to stand behind their free press.