The Philippines’ Courageous Journalists

The biting tongues of Filipino broadcast commentators deliver some of the unkindest cuts for corrupt politicos, local warlords, police officials and soldiers. Nearly everyone in the Philippines listens to talk radio, and broadcast journalists are dying for speaking their minds.

The immense popularity of on-air yakking explains why broadcast criticism of foul deeds is one of the country’s more dangerous jobs – riskier, on a per capita basis, than service as a left-wing activist or even as a guerrilla for the communists’ New People’s Army or militant Muslim groups. No question, the Philippines is far and away the most perilous place to be a journalist in Asia, if not the world.

Unlike the hundreds of left-leaning activists who’ve been wiped out

in the past few years, most of the slain journalists are known more for their political connections than for their leftist proclivities. The common denominator, though, remains the same – police officials, hiding behind their badges, are most often responsible for the killings, rights groups contend.

“The thing behind the killing is the state security forces,” said Carlos Conde, secretary general of the National Union of Journalists. “With the journalists, it’s local warlords, police officers going after critical journalists.”

And, according to him, the government doesn’t seem to care.

Conde’s advocacy group notes that 79 journalists have been killed since the “people power” revolution of 1986 that ousted Ferdinand Marcos after 21 years in power. At least 42 journalists, mostly radio broadcasters, have been murdered since President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo seized power five years ago.

Spotty rights record Arroyo has come under sharp domestic and international criticism for contributing to a lawless environment in which armed perpetrators operate as though they have a license to kill, either in pursuit of her government’s counter-terrorism policies or simply in enforcing law and order. The unmitigated killing spree has badly eroded Arroyo’s democratic credentials and raises hard questions about her government’s commitment to protecting even basic civil liberties.

“Now they say they’ve created a task force, but they’re not taking charges seriously,” said Wilnor Papa, deputy director of the Manila office of Amnesty International.

In a scathing report condemning scores of killings of armed and unarmed leftists, often allegedly by assailants linked to armed forces, Amnesty International cites a “lack of confidence in the criminal-justice system” contributing to the slaughter that has spiraled to include journalists as targets.

Local vigilantes, “allegedly linked to municipal authorities and the Philippine National Police, have gone after suspected criminals, including alleged petty thieves and street children”, according to the report. It is in that atmosphere that “journalists were also at risk of armed attacks”, the report states.

Among the 42 cases of journalists being killed since Arroyo came to power, only one police officer has been convicted and sentenced. The killer got a life term last November for murdering radio commentator Edgar Damalerio. Global media freedom groups such as the US- based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hailed that conviction and the government’s stated commitment to pursue the many remaining unsolved cases.

But “as time passes, the successful prosecution in the Damalerio case looks like an anomaly – not the first step in a vigorous government campaign to bring to justice the killers of journalists”, CPJ executive director Anne Cooper said. For all the international ignominy, the killers almost always get away with murder, and matters are only getting worse.

On May 6, radio commentator Paul Manaog was shot three times while walking with his wife in the central city of Naga. Left for dead, he remained in critical condition while authorities made their usual investigation, picking up spent cartridges and poking around. The Philippine Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, another advocacy group, surmised that Manaog was targeted for critical commentaries about local politicos, possible rivals of the family that owns the station where he worked.

Two weeks later, gunmen on motorcycles killed Fernando Batul, a commentator for a radio station in Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island in the southern Philippines, with six shots as he was driving to work. That killing, according to CPJ, came one week after two hand-grenades and a letter were left at Batul’s home threatening harm to his family if he continued with critical broadcasts. Early last week, George and Mazel Vigo, both radio broadcast journalists, were gunned down by unidentified assailants on the southern island of Mindanao.

The authorities round up the usual suspects – ordering investigations, issuing denials and sometimes even offering rewards. The net effect, media-freedom groups contend, is one vast top-down cover-up. On May 5, Philippine National Police Senior Superintendent Samuel Pagdilao said many murders of journalists had been solved, while also denying what CPJ’s Cooper refers to as a “culture of impunity”.

Local journalists say the reporting risk has risen ever since Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez suggested that a number of journalist victims were actually shot dead while drinking or possibly fighting over women. He said the accusations against the government were often exaggerated by leftists – a category in which he lumped Amnesty International.

Those scribes who were still worried, Gonzalez advised, might do well to go ahead and carry weapons – a suggestion that raised the specter of target practice becoming a part of journalist training programs. In any case, the National Union of Journalists said many killed journalists were already armed but were outgunned.

Caught in the crossfire Filipino journalists are often secondary victims in broader conflicts, pitching the government against armed leftist or radical Muslim groups. Others, it is believed, have been gunned down in local political turf wars where the police side with and carry out orders made by offended politicians and local heavies.

For example, in the government’s pursuit of the leaders of the leftist Bayan Muna organization led by longtime former Communist Party member Satur Ocampo, the government has marshaled a panoply of agencies into joint action.

“It’s a strategic holistic approach, the use of government agencies with military tactics,” said Girlie Patilla, leader of the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace. “It’s not just the killing, but neutralization of critics in various provinces.”

She specifically cites the military-led “Operation Plan Freedom Watch”, a counter-insurgency program that often involves not just the armed forces, but the departments of social welfare, health and non-governmental organizations.

The controversial approach, including much of the nomenclature, appears to have been at least partly inspired by the United States, which is now pouring more than US$100 million a year into the Philippines’ military establishment for training and weapons, mainly to combat terrorism. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Washington has identified the Philippines’ ongoing battle against Muslim insurgent groups as a critical regional front in its “global war on terrorism”.

Conde, of the National Union of Journalists, believes that at most “one or two suspected leftists” were among the journalists who have been killed in the past five years.

“Mostly it’s local politics, crime syndicates,” he said. “Mostly it’s connected with their work, for broadcasts, for stories on air attacking politicians and drug lords.”

The bigger question is whether the killings and the lawless environment will eventually provide a pretext for Arroyo to declare an extended period of martial law, the tool that the late dictator Marcos used to consolidate and cling to power. Vergil Santos, chairman of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, is convinced that is the government’s motive.

“This is a desperate administration,” he said. “It wants to perpetuate its power. I have no doubt [it is] behind the killing. The administration is encouraging an environment where these things can be done.” ____

Journalist Donald Kirk is a frequent visitor to the Philippines and is the author of the books Philippines in Crisis: US Power Versus Local Revolt and Looted: The Philippines after the Bases.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.

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