end impunity: stop killing journalists, please

Yesterday, November 23, was the second year commemoration of the Ampatuan Massacre here in the Philippines. And may I just say that I find it so sick that this gruesome event in the history of histories should even be “commemorated,” after two whole years, without anyone being held officially accountable. Justice, wherefore art thou?

What raises this event to its own level of ghastliness is the fact that so many media workers died in this unfortunate incident. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), 58 men and women died in that incident, 32 of them were journalists — media people who were there for the coverage, a task, their usual duty. They were there to accompany the rival of the ruling politicians of Maguindanao. But some rivalries in this poor country of mine  sometimes turn violent. Their convoy was ambushed, everyone was killed, their bodies — and even their cars and vans, believe it or not — were buried, or at least the killers tried to bury most of them until authorities arrived. And when the massacre site was discovered, the rest was history. Unbelievable. I mean, who does that??? Burying the bodies and the vans! When I first heard of this, I thought this was strangely surreal, like a very creative plot point from a magical realist novel, until I saw the pictures and the news reports. I gagged and almost puked.

Ghastly. Read the CMFR statement here.

I could very well understand why journalism — or media work, especially those connected in delivering hard news — could sometimes be tagged as a dangerous profession. If a journalist has unbending principles that highlight good work ethics, then objectivity will rule. But sometimes, crooked politicians and other lowly elements in society would try to sway that objectivity for some “positive” subjectivity. Those who do not bend sometimes end up dead.

I first encountered formal details of media-related killings in the website of IFEX or the International Freedom of Expression Exchange when I stumbled upon them during my news writer work days for the feminist media NGO Isis International Manila in the early 2000s. Reading their reports, I find it hard to believe that people whose main job is to present the truth out there to the world would be killed just because they were doing their job. Aren’t media people supposed to be neutral and protected in times of conflict? In school, I learned that media is supposedly a watchdog, an objective entity that should keep an eye on social structures and report anomalies. Since when did journalism work become synonymous to being soldiers, policemen or other professions where lives are always on the line?

As I read those IFEX reports, I somewhat felt sad that those media killings happened in areas with conflict or war-torn areas, also in countries with oppressive regimes. Secretly, I thought, “Glad this doesn’t happen in the Philippines on a regular basis like in those countries.” But of course, what we really want is for this thing not to happen at all, anywhere, to media people. Media people shouldn’t be threatened like this.

The first time I saw someone here sport a shirt with this message was when we attended the Stop the New Round coalition anti-WTO-GATTS rally. (Mendiola, Manila / April 2005)

But alas, they are indeed threatened, for serious reasons and even for shallow ones. I guess when a corrupt person is offended, the offense felt is so deep that blood is willing to be shed. Yes, this sounds strange, I know. And yes, this happens in a democracy, as well.

When I worked in the Pinoy Times newspaper in the early 2000s, before joining Isis, I spent almost two years as the political tabloid’s entertainment editor, happily minding my (show)business one time, when our elder editors started making a fuss one night before going home. Apparently, our publisher got a death threat from a mayor of a city. The paper just did a story (or a series of stories, I can’t remember) about how corrupt this mayor’s family was (or is, actually), to the point that the mayor’s daughter buys underwear worth a thousand pesos each, or something like that. Of course there were other more interesting details but that underwear one was the one that stuck for me, since I could just imagine that they could give that much money to help improve the lives of children and women in the slum areas of their supposedly progressively modern city.

Needless to say, the mayor and his family were offended by what my editors published. Instead of engaging them/us in dialogue or presenting their side of the story somewhere, I guess they found it easier to send our publisher a death threat. “Hala, hindi ka na puwedeng dumaan sa city na ‘yan!” one of our colleagues joked. I was thinking “Seriously? Our publisher can’t show his face in that mayor’s city just because they did an exposé on his anomalies and such? I thought this was a democracy?”

I thought since they were taking it lightly, it was sort of a joke since they were actually joking about it. But I guess that is so Filipino — to make light of grave situations by joking about it. I merely shrugged it off until, when we all put the paper to bed and stepped out of the office, our head editors carefully planned that we all ride inside the cars of those who have them, and said that not one of the newspaper staff should walk outside the gates, or the street, of our office. “Mahirap na, baka may sumipot dito,” one of our editors said. I thought she was just half-joking but yes, it could also be possible that hitmen could be sent to liquidate our publisher or whoever in our staff. I somewhat forgot that these editors of mine also had similar conflicts before with a past Philippine president when they were all working for another newspaper that that President had closed down when they published an exposé about him.

In short, I trusted them and went along, being the veteran journalists that they are. “Okay,” I thought, “now this is serious.” So we all ended up squeezed inside the cars and drove out in a convoy, and those who will take public transportation were dropped in a very commercial and populated area by those who had cars, to be safer. And that was when I learned that indeed, journalism could really be a dangerous profession. For real.

And that event two years ago still proves that point.

I wonder when this will stop. These killings, these threats. Of course we have to admit that not all journalists practice ethical work styles, but that’s beside the point. No journalist should be killed for simply doing their job, exposing anomalies, and keeping an eye on power abusers.

This is why we should be more vigilant in pressing the government to attain justice for the victims of the Maguindanao Massacre. NEVER FORGET.

And this is also why I signed this statement from our college:

HOW MANY MORE MUST DIE ?

Statement of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication on the second anniversary of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre

DESPITE President Benigno Aquino III’s pledge that his administration will stop the killing of journalists, twelve have been killed since the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009 claimed the lives of 58 men and women, of whom 32 were journalists and media workers.

Neither the glacially slow trial of the accused in that massacre, nor the pledge Mr. Aquino made in his 2010 State of the Nation Address that he will “hold murderers accountable,” has made much of an impression on those who resent press attention. Not only have journalists been killed since November 2009. A number have also been threatened, sued for libel on the flimsiest grounds, barred from attending interviews and press conferences, and physically assaulted. In one of the more recent incidents, unidentified persons also burned a Catholic Church-owned radio station in Occidental Mindoro.

Mr. Aquino’s “hold murderers accountable” statement was the last he has made about the murder of journalists. He has since been silent on the subject, although he has criticized the press from time to time for its alleged bias against his administration and focus on his personal life.

At the same time, his administration has taken almost none of the steps agreed upon  between media advocacy and journalists’ organizations and  his communication group and the department of justice in July, 2010 as necessary to stop the killings.  Among these were the formation of Quick Response Teams to immediately investigate the killing of journalists and to assure the integrity of evidence in the crime site, and Malacanang support for the reform of court rules and procedures to speed up the judicial process.

Mr.  Aquino’s silence on the most recent incidents of journalists’ murders is equally unforgivable. And yet a statement from him each time a journalist is murdered declaring his impatience over the failure of the police to prevent it, and immediate police action in furtherance of the filing of the appropriate cases as a consequence, could help make would be killers hesitate by suggesting that things have changed and they could be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, Mr. Aquino has rejected the dismantling of private armies, even if they not only made the November 23 massacre possible, but have also been a factor in some cases in the 100 other places in the country where warlords have also privatized government security forces.

What has always been clear is the imperative of showing the killers and would- be killers of journalists  that they can’t get away with murder.  State failure to punish most of the killers of journalists—only ten have been  convicted since 1986 out of 122 cases—is after all what continues to encourage not only the killing of journalists in the Philippines, but also their harassment.   The whole world has known it since 2003, when the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found that the killings were due to the weaknesses of the justice system, and called for immediate government action–which, as usual, the past administration ignored.

Today Mr. Aquino seems to be as unconcerned over the killing of journalists in the Philippines as his predecessor, despite the rest of the world’s being sufficiently alarmed to have declared November 23, 2011 the International Day to End Impunity in recognition of that event’s significance not only to the state of press freedom in the Philippines, but also to the safety of journalists everywhere.

Charged with the education and training of future journalists and media practitioners, we in the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication have the responsibility as well as the right to ask how many more must die before Mr. Aquino acts.   So does the rest of the international press community—and so does every Filipino.

Dean Luis V. Teodoro

Dean Georgina R. Encanto

College Executive Board

Dean Roland B. Tolentino

Dr. Lourdes M. Portus

Dr. Jose R. Lacson, Jr.

Faculty

Dr. Elizabeth L. Enriquez, Ph.D.

Prof. Josefina C. Santos

Prof. Rosa Maria T. Feliciano

Dr. Eulalio R. Guieb III

Prof. Fernando A. Austria, Jr.

Dr. Florinda D.F. Mateo

Prof. Juno Paruñgao

Ms. Roxanne Girlie Cipriano

Prof. Danilo A. Arao

Ms. Lucia Tangi

Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson

Prof. Jose C. Gutierrez III

Prof. Libay Linsangan Cantor

Mr. Cenon O. Palomares

Mr. Patrick F. Campos

Prof. Sari Raissa Dalena

Lecturers

Twink Macaraig

Pinky M. Aseron

Melba S. Estonilo

Ina Cosio

CMC REPS and Staff

Gina Villegas

Clarissa S. Concepcion

Alex NP Tamayo

Jonathan Beldia

Nemesio B. Faulan

Louie Olid

Teresita Santos

Janette Pamaylaon

Virginia B. Cuyugan

CMC Students

Jefferson Lyndon Ragragio, President, CMC Graduate Students’ Association and 6 Executive Committee Members

Norma Riego, CMC Student Council Chairperson and 12 Council members

17 CMC Student Organizations

Never forget. More importantly, NEVER AGAIN.

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~ by leaflens on November 24, 2011.

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