Filipino journalists are murdered with impunity
The Philippines is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, says David McNeill
15 Jan 10

Philippines Andal Ampatuan, Jr.
The Philippines is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists  says David McNeill

The November mass killing of a group of reporters in the southern island of Mindanao has capped the Philippines reputation as perhaps the most dangerous non-flak jacket story on the planet for media workers.

A fact-finding team led by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has confirmed that at least 30 reporters and press workers were murdered, or more than half of the 57 confirmed fatalities, in the 23 November massacre.

The reporters were covering the campaign of politician Esmael Mangudadatu, who was attempting to challenge local strongman Andal Ampatuan Jr. for governor of Maguindanao Province in the country’s May general election. As Mangudadatu’s supporters made their way to file his candidacy, over 100 armed goons struck, abducting and murdering everyone in the Mangudadatu convoy.

Among the intended victims was freelance reporter Aquiles Zonio, who escaped after being tipped off at a hotel en route. Interviewed by Index on Censorship beside the mass grave where his colleagues were dumped, he was still in shock.

“We had breakfast together that morning,” he recalls of his last meeting with his colleagues. “We were laughing and joking. Then I hear all my friends had been killed, every single one. I still cannot believe it.”

Ampatuan Junior has been charged with masterminding the attack in a trial that many believe will be a test of the country’s entire justice system. For years, the Ampatuan clan has dominated Maguindanao and carried the region for President Maria Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, delivering blocs of votes to her in the 2004 and 2007 general elections.

In return, critics say she turned a blind eye to the vast voter fraud, intimidation and almost medieval cruelty that her allies used to hold power. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism led the first angry reactions to the killings.

“In one barbaric, gruesome Monday morning, the monster created by clan wars, warlords, and the tacit approval – and exploitation of it – by high government officials claimed the lives of over 40 people.”

Journalists say that while the scale of the November attack was particularly shocking, the Philippines has long been one of the five most dangerous countries in the world for the free press.

“Reporters have been getting killed here for years,” says Ma Christina Rodriguez, a spokeswoman of the NUJP. “Sometimes there isn’t even the barest investigation.”

According to the NUJP, 134 journalists have lost their lives while working in the Philippines since 1986 – at least 35 in the last year. That’s close to half the 76 journalists murdered around the world in 2009 according to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

“There have been just five convictions associated with these killings, all trigger men, no masterminds,” says Sonny Fernandez, vice chairperson of the Philippine NUJ. “The killers are becoming more brazen.”

Philippine journalists have grown used to the grim annual roll call in their profession, and the lack of interest it elicits from the authorities. Many journalists have been targeted by local strongmen who run chunks of the country like their own private fiefdoms and barely tolerate the free media. But the NUJ says as the scale of intimidation and killings increases, there are signs that the central state is involved too.

Those fears were strengthened last year by the discovery that the journalists’ union itself was considered an “enemy of the state” by the Philippine military.

“The NUJP reiterates that we have, so far, seen no indication that the murder of journalists in this country is part of official policy,” said the union, before warning: “But we may have to reconsider our position.”

Watchdogs blame several interlinked factors for the increasingly deadly toll on Philippine journalism: a weak central government, powerful and corrupt military and political clans that fill the vacuum, police incompetence and the cheap cost of a life. The NUJ says young goons can be hired for as little as 20 Euro to murder a reporter. Former army and police officers, vigilantes and private bodyguards are also on tap for a professional rubout, claim observers.

Most journalists here believe Arroyo is guilty of turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of the military and local warlords she relies on to hold power. At worst she is a deadly enemy of the free press, says Rodriguez. “President Arroyo and her government have been particularly hostile to the media.”

Despite the president’s oft professed support for journalists, the NUJ argues that she showed her true colours during the 2007 state of emergency, ostensibly called to prevent a military coup but in reality to rein in the press, Fernandez believes.

“The media was the target of the state of emergency. The military were deployed to newspapers and at least one TV network.”

Fernandez says the more murders go unsolved, the more perilous life becomes for those journalists still working. “It started to become dangerous when the first killing went unsolved. People see they can get away with it. The more this happens, the more the powers that be are emboldened.”

David McNeill is a freelance journalist covering South East Asia