Journalists’ safety: The long road ahead

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Luis V. Teodoro-125

Vantage Point


THE Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) launched on Nov. 22, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Nov. 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre, a document unique to the Philippines.

Drafted by the AIJC in consultation with the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the National Union of Journalists (NUJP), and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists (PPASJ) is the first of its kind on the planet to comprehensively address the need to protect journalists from the many perils they face from those who would silence them.

Being murdered is the worst of those perils. Since 1986, when press freedom and free expression were restored in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, 165 journalists and media workers have been killed for their work in the Philippines. Only in 14 cases have the killers been convicted, and only in the Ampatuan Massacre trial, which ended last August, were the alleged masterminds tried. None of the brains behind the dozens of other killings have been brought to court.

The killings have continued in the six administrations after that of Marcos. The record high was 80 during the nine years of the problematic and scandal-ridden rule of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when the Ampatuan Massacre happened. Fifty-eight men and women, of whom 32 were journalists and media workers, were killed. Mrs. Arroyo’s political allies were on trial for nine years as the accused masterminds. Fourteen other journalists so far have been murdered for doing their jobs during the first three years of the Duterte regime.

The reasons why the killings are continuing have been identified as, among others, the failure of the justice system to penalize most if not all of those responsible, particularly those who planned them and hired the killers. The way of doing things that has become the norm rather than the exception — the culture of impunity in which wrongdoers routinely escape punishment — is sustained by a number of other factors. Among them is the weakness of the justice system that is specially evident in the warlord-ruled communities of these isles of fear.

The primary indicator of that weakness is the collusion between local government officials, the police, and the military. It is amply demonstrated in the involvement of all three in the Ampatuan Massacre, in which over 70 police and military personnel and the paramilitaries they commanded, which constituted the private army of the political clan that masterminded the massacre, were the killers. But there is also a shortage of prosecutors, and the reluctance of many of them in the same warlord-dominated communities to prosecute the assassins and the masterminds behind them.

Almost every administration after that of Marcos has also either ignored the problem, dismissed the murders as isolated cases and of no consequence, or even contributed to it by victim-blaming the slain journalists themselves.

During his six years in office, former President Benigno Aquino III, for example, periodically criticized the press for its supposed inaccuracies and bias, and for focusing on his love life, while dismissing the killing of journalists as a minor issue.

Everyone is free to criticize the press, but those in power must be responsible enough to make sure that what they say do not cause harm. Absent any condemnation of the killings, and because coming from the highest official of the government, Aquino’s tirades against the press could conceivably have contributed to encouraging those who wanted to silence journalists, to harass, threaten or even have them killed. Thirty journalists, or an average of five each year, were in fact killed for their work during Aquino’s six-year watch.

The Duterte regime, however, has gone far beyond mere criticism of the press. Not only by insulting, cursing, and demonizing them and accusing those killed of corruption is it trying to silence journalists, but also by using libel and other laws against the online news site Rappler and others to intimidate the rest of the independent and critical press. Its hirelings are also taking down the websites of journalists’ groups and alternative media news sites, red-baiting individual journalists as well as entire organizations like the NUJP and even the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), and systematically disparaging and calling for the suppression of media organizations it regards as critical of its policies and actions.

The regime campaign against the free press can only add to the perils journalists face on a daily basis. But mostly unremarked in the past is an equally critical factor why the killings are continuing. It is the indifference and lack of outrage in the communities and among most Filipinos when journalists are threatened, harassed, or even murdered.

Part of the reason is mass ignorance of the role of a free press in the democratization of Philippine society and governance. But it is also due to the failings of the press and journalists themselves, primarily in terms of their limited capacity to provide the information and analysis the country’s citizens need to make sense of what’s happening around them. As a result, many regard the press and journalists as of no value to their lives. And yet, citizen appreciation of the crucial role of a free press in this rumored democracy would be an important factor in defending press freedom and the journalists who are exercising that freedom for the sake of public information and enlightenment.

In recognition of the multidimensional factors behind the continuing killing of journalists, the PPASJ seeks to, among others, 1.) engage government and media owners in the effort to ensure the safety of journalists; 2.) encourage public media literacy and the institutionalization of safety courses in the schools; 3.) improve the working conditions of journalists; and 4.) encourage media practitioners’ rigorous adherence to the ethical and professional standards of journalism practice.

Although the PPASJ has identified what need to be done, the key issue is still how best the organizations mandated to do so can implement the plan. Illustrative of the problem was an issue that was lengthily discussed during the Nov. 22 launch: the need for the media organizations, media advocacy groups, the government, academia, and the public at large to agree on the need to defend press freedom despite their differences.

The differences among the various actors needed in making sure that the plan will succeed is not solely an obvious problem between media organizations and journalists’ and media advocacy groups on the one hand, and government on the other, given the latter’s hostility towards the independent press. It is also an issue in the journalism community itself.

Because of the conflicting political and economic interests behind media organizations, and many practitioners’ serving as the attack dogs and public relations advocates of government, the community is itself far from united. For example, an old boys’ “press club” that calls itself “national” periodically attacks independent journalists in support of the anti-press freedom agenda of its regime patrons. Addressing the disunity and corruption problem in the journalism community alone will take tremendous effort as well as a lot of time.

Although indeed unique to the Philippines, the PPASJ is only the first step in ensuring the safety of journalists for the sake of developing the informed public democratic discourse needs. There’s still a long road ahead of us, and much, much more that need to be done.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).