A deadly freedom in Philippines

SUN JOURNAL

Press: Since 1986, when the country became a democracy, at least 48 journalists have died violently.

December 18, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

QUEZON CITY, Philippines - In the cramped offices of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, visitors can purchase books examining the country's energetic, largely unfettered media. The titles hint at the status of the press and the political climate: News for Sale and Staying Alive.

Staying Alive, published by an alliance of journalism groups, is a primer for reporters on how to avoid getting killed on the job, including tips on handling death threats and obtaining adequate life insurance.

The alliance, which publicizes killings of journalists and raises funds for victims' families, is one of several devoted to reducing the country's mounting death toll among journalists, second in number in recent years to those killed in Iraq.

Since 1986, when the Philippines became a democracy, at least 48 journalists have died violently, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, including eight this year.

The most recent victims include:

Stephen Omaois, a reporter who was writing about a public works project for a community newspaper, was bludgeoned in Kalinga province in late November. His death remains under investigation by CPJ.

Eldy Gabinales, a radio commentator on the southern island of Mindanao who was a critic of illegal gambling and drugs, was shot Oct. 19 as he left a supermarket.

Gene Boyd Lumawag, a photographer, was shot in the head Nov. 12 in Sulu province. He was working on a documentary about local government.

Herson Hinolan, a radio station manager and commentator, was shot by unknown assailants on Panay Island.

Filipino journalists have launched an aggressive effort to bring their colleagues' killers to justice and to reform the unscrupulous practices that can lead to a journalist's death.

"What we are trying to do now is to break the culture of impunity that surrounds these killings," says Carlos H. Conde, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. "The fact that no one has been convicted in any of these killings since 1986 is the main reason, I think, that the murders have continued."

"The murders create a climate of fear; there is a chill on the media in the localities where the killings took place," says Sheila S. Coronel, one of the founders of the Philippine Center and its director. "This chill makes it difficult for all journalists, even the bravest and most ethical ones, to get on with their work."

In the Philippines, a free press often blurs imperceptibly with an unprincipled press. It is not unusual for journalists to be paid by the campaigns they cover, bribes are routine, and screaming headlines deliberately spark "cockfights" among politicians. Under these conditions, the news media become more vulnerable to attack.

"The sad truth also is that the press has not always been responsible," Coronel says. "The media are guilty of many abuses, including sensationalism, inaccuracy, corruption. Many radio commentators, especially, are fast and loose with facts. They resort to insult and name-calling, sometimes without much grounding in fact."

"Those who feel aggrieved by media excesses are either unaware of existing mechanisms to seek redress, such as complaints before self-regulatory bodies or lawsuits, or are too impatient with such mechanisms," Coronel says. "Some, especially local political or crime bosses, think the best way to silence a broadcaster is by killing him."

As a rule, the Filipino press is poorly paid, which indirectly exposes members to harm, Conde says.

"We are convinced that many of these killings can be traced to the low economic status of journalists, who are so lowly paid that they are exposed to corruption by politicians, warlords and criminal gangs," he says. "That's why many of them become more vulnerable to violence."

In 1986, when dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos was overthrown, the Philippine press played a crucial role in re-establishing democracy. But for the journalists, it remains a precarious democracy.

"Many freedoms, including a free press, were restored after the fall of the dictatorship," Coronel says. "But the state remains weak and unable to protect those who exercise their freedoms."

After a series of shootings this summer, the National Police suggested that journalists carry guns, an idea rejected by Conde's organization. "Arming journalists not only worsens the problem," the national journalists' union said in response, but "it prevents the media, the authorities and the public from finding the right measures to solve the continued killings of journalists."

Radio commentators in rural provinces far from metro Manila, "where state rule is most fragile," are the most frequent victims, Coronel says. They're often targeted for reporting on corruption, human rights violations and environmental abuse.

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