THE Philippines remains the deadliest country for journalists in Asia, according to a year-end overview of journalists killed, held hostage, detained, or reported missing around the world. The Philippines comes after warzone countries Syria, Mexico, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
At least five journalists in the Philippines were targeted in 2017, with four of them dying from their injuries, said the report by free press advocating organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which was released on Tuesday, December 19.
“The Philippines thus resumed a grim trend going back more than decade — one that was interrupted only in 2016, an exceptional year in which no journalist was killed,” read the report.
The report cited current President Rodrigo Duterte as being a concern, including in its Philippine assessment one of the president’s most highly cited remarks.
Not long after being elected in May of 2016, Duterte — who only allowed state-run media to cover his inauguration — made an alarming comment, that RWB said turned out to be more than just talk this year.
“Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a b*tch,” RWP quoted Duterte saying. “Free speech won’t save you, my dear.”
The Tuesday report follows another that was released in April that ranked the Philippines as 127th of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index. At the number one spot as having most press freedom was Norway, the last being North Korea.
PH journalism and impunity
Despite being a democratic nation (the longest-standing one in Southeast Asia and a member of the Community of Democracies), advocates and organizations for press freedom like RWB say that dangers for journalists in the Philippines are long standing, with impunity being a recurring issue.
“Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity. An airtime rental system known as blocktiming is widely practiced, allowing anyone to host their own political program. This in turn blurs the frontiers of journalism,” read a profile of the Philippines by RWB.
According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) which has been recording journalist deaths around the world since 1992, the Philippines saw a number of fatalities in all but six of the past 25 years.
A total of 79 journalists have been killed according to its collective data, with 77 of them being targeted for murder, and 69 of the murders carried out with impunity — 42 were in the past decade.
The Philippines was placed fifth on CPJ’s 2017 Global Impunity Index, which highlights nations where journalists are murdered while their killers go free.
One journalist killed this year was print reporter Joaquin Briones of Masbate, who was shot four times in the back, dying on the spot. No suspects were arrested nor identified, but police had suspected either local politics or personal grudges as possible motives for his killing.
Lydia Buena, the managing editor of national tabloid newspaper Remate where Briones worked, told AFP that his “hard hitting” reports were most likely what led to his killing. Many of his articles were on issues like illegal fishing, gambling, or drugs.
“He had received many death threats because he had written many articles about Masbate,” she told AFP.
“He was pretty tough. He had a lot of enemies in the local community but he would continue,” she added.
The most harrowing single-event incident for journalists in world history was in 2009, when 30 Philippine journalists and two media support workers were attacked and brutally murdered while traveling to Maguindanao province alongside a fleet of people intending to file gubernatorial candidacy papers for a local politician.
A total of 57 people were murdered in what was seen to be driven by political clan rivalry. The bodies were widely reported to have been dumped in a mass hillside grave in Ampatuan.
In a report made by Philippine press organizations — the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and MindaNews — the victims were mostly workers of Mindanao-based newspapers and some from radio and television.
“The massacre claimed nearly an entire generation of journalists from the small print and broadcast communities of General Santos, Koronadal City, and nearby areas,” said the report.
Out of many, the prime suspect was quickly found to be Andal Ampatuan Jr., then a local mayor in Maguindanao province, who was charged with multiple mass murder.
The Philippines did drop one place in the index since 2016, but not much progress has been made.
In its impunity index report, CPJ cited President Duterte’s formation of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, “which includes a designated team of investigators and prosecutors for the speedy probe of new cases of media killings.”
Though the commission has announced a number of murder investigations, no convictions have yet been made. Also, at the beginning of 2017, former Philippine policeman Arturo Lascanas said in a news conference that current President Duterte ordered him to assassinate radio journalists Juan “Jun” Pala in the highly reported Davao City “death squad”. Duterte, who was mayor of Davao at the time of the assassination, has denied claims.
CPJ further reported that justice for the 2009 Maguindanao massacre victims have not progressed. In fact, three of the suspects were acquitted in July of this year on grounds of insufficient evidence.
Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, one of the prime suspects and member of the Ampatuan clan, was even released from jail in March after posting an P11.6-million bail.
In the past 15 years, 1035 professional journalists were killed according to RWB. In 2017, a total of 65 were reported killed as a result of their work.
Of the 65, 50 were professional journalists, seven were citizen-journalists, and eight were media workers. Broken down by gender, 55 of the journalists killed were men, and ten were women.
Furthermore, the report said that 26 were killed in the course of their work, while 39 were murdered. And like in 2016, the majority of deaths (60-percent) were targeted — usually to silence the journalists.
But 2017 was actually the least deadly year for journalists in 14 years. In 2016, the death toll was at 79.
The downward trend though, has nothing to do with the media or journalism landscape being safer. Rather, RWB suggests that the decrease in journalist deaths may come from efforts of campaigns conducted by international NGOs and media organizations on working to improve protection to journalists.
Rigorous lobbying by government and international bodies by NGOs, such as RWB, have also been productive according to the organization.
And then there’s the also the unfortunate fact that many journalists are abandoning countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya — often those in need to reporting — because they have become too dangerous. Other journalists have further chosen to pursue less dangerous professions.