MANILA — Many Filipinos are proud of the freedom the press enjoys in their country but this rosy picture has been tarnished by the killings of a number of journalists. With 13 Filipino journalists killed last year and four media workers murdered so far in 2005, the Philippines — according to the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists — has become the second most deadly place for journalists after war-torn Iraq.
Confronted with what they perceive as a wave of targeted killings, Philippine journalists are infuriated. But the angry commentaries that are published in the wake of each killing have had little practical impact.
The fact that journalists are violently killed — often in broad daylight — is outrageous but the scandal does not stop there. Equally appalling is the fact that none of the murders have been solved in the sense that the perpetrators have been convicted and put behind bars.
“So much talk, but very little actions as evidenced by nobody being arrested,” says Jose Pavia, publisher of the local newspaper Mabuhay. “The government must do much more, talk less and produce results.”
The carnage has attracted considerable international attention. Recently a delegation of the Paris-based group Reporters Sans Frontiers visited the Philippines to assess the situation and expressed alarm that no arrests had been made. A similar investigation by the International Federation of Journalists in January came to the conclusion that “a widespread culture of violence that is tolerated and condoned by the government and officials” is behind the deaths.
Manila has denied these claims and in a demonstration of disapproval avoided official contact with the visiting journalists’ groups.
Philippine journalists have repeatedly charged that the government lacks the political determination to bring the killers to justice. “Many of the suspects are people in power, local officials, drug lords with connections to local officials,” says Carlos Conde, a well-known Filipino journalist and secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. He adds, “Many of the killers have been identified as police officers or have links with the police or the military. So it is not surprising that the government would instinctively deny these things because if they didn’t probably they would be dealing with a lot more problems than they have now.”
Similar allegations are regularly brought up in the Philippine media. In a recent column titled “Violence and Impunity,” Michael Tan addressed what he termed “the high mortality rate of mass media practitioners in the Philippines” and offered a sociological explanation for the killings: “In our feudal society, the rich and famous see no bounds to their privileges, and this can include the right to exterminate people they don’t like. Journalists aren’t killed; they are executed. The politicians think they’re in the right, and so do the police and the judges.”
In many cases, the killed journalists were well-known whistle-blowers whose public exposes of graft, corruption and other wrongdoings embarrassed powerful people. The killings of journalists typically take place in rural areas, where communities are tightly knit, and public affairs and politics have a personal dimension. In this setting political animosities are frequently settled violently.
The Philippines’ “culture of violence” (it has one of the highest homicide and murder rates in the world) is often attributed to social and economic factors. While mass poverty and socio-economic depression may explain why life is so cheap in this Southeast Asian nation (professional killers can be commissioned for a few dollars), political and institutional inefficiencies are also responsible for the dire straits of law and order.
“Philippine democracy exists in an atmosphere of institutionalized crisis,” says journalist Steven Rogers. Elaborating on what is often termed the “culture of impunity,” Rogers says that “at the local, provincial and regional levels . . . governments and legislators remain immune from investigation.” Many Filipinos would agree with Rogers that “the lack of equal justice is the country’s central political issue.”
In recent months, the killings of journalists have spread to members of other groups with a political impact. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights has expressed alarm over what it terms the “seemingly systematic” assault on left-leaning activists. Since the beginning of the year at least 20 members of leftist groups have been gunned down in different parts of the country by armed men with alleged links with the military. The fact that in these cases, as well, the perpetrators have not been brought to justice is particularly unsettling.
Meanwhile many Filipinos are worried about the impact the killings of journalists have on their media. Occasionally these killings are described as an indirect form of censorship. When journalists fear for their lives, one cannot say the press is truly free. Says Philippine journalist Jose Pavia: “There is this reality that silencing the journalists is a way of silencing democracy.”
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