2009: A Year of Unprecedented Tribulation, Unity and Resistance for the Philippine Press

The year 2009 will forever be remembered as a year of unprecedented tribulation for the Philippine Press, with the November 23 massacre in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao making its grisly mark in history as the worst ever attack on the media.

But it was also the year when Filipino journalists closed ranks and defiantly stood up for the freedom of the press and democracy.

At least 30 journalists (and at least one reportedly missing) were among at least 57 persons slaughtered when members and armed supporters of the Ampatuan clan stopped the convoy of a rival political clan on its way to filing a certificate of candidacy. Among the dead were women members of the rival clan, lawyers and other civilians who were not part of the convoy but happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The toll was especially heavy for the families of our slain colleagues, most of them breadwinners, who left behind at least 74 children and dependents.

The carnage in Ampatuan capped years of continued impunity for killers of Filipino journalists.

Before the massacre, 104 Filipino journalists had been murdered since 1986, 67 of them under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo alone. Only around five cases have resulted in the conviction of the killers, though no masterminds have yet to be arrested in any of the murders.

The Ampatuan massacre also happened amid setbacks in the handful of cases that are being prosecuted.

The Court of Appeals in December issued a preliminary injunction against the serving of arrest warrants against the suspected masterminds in the killing of Sultan Kudarat journalist Marlene Esperat pending the resolution of a petition for review filed by the accused. As a result, according to colleagues in Mindanao, the accused brains in the Esperat murder have reported back to their government offices.

A key eyewitness in the killing of Aklan broadcaster Herson Hinolan recanted his statement after earlier testifying that his family had received threats and bribe offers from the camp of the suspected gunman.

The massacre brought attention to the plight of Filipino journalists who are being slowly killed by dismal working conditions like low pay, long working hours and lack of job security and benefits.

Filipino journalists and media workers were also are among those who suffered the brunt of the soaring costs of rice and other basic commodities, transport fares and other services due to the impact of the global economic crisis.

Other forms of attacks and threats have also persisted throughout the year.

In July, around 50 journalists were detained by soldiers in Guindulungan town, also in Maguindanao, in an apparent effort to prevent them from covering the plight of evacuees displaced by fighting.

Days after the Ampatuan massacre, unidentified persons fired a gun in front of the house of Bacolod City-based journalists Edgar Cadagat, former NUJP Chairman and current president of the Negros Press Club. On December 8, Camarines Norte broadcaster Efren Español was attacked inside the announcer’s booth by the former police chief of the province, who was armed with a .45 caliber gun.

This year, proponents of the Right of Reply Bill (RORB) railroaded the measure in Congress despite widespread opposition from the media.

But these threats and attacks have only served to drive Filipino journalists, despite the fierce competition of their profession, to greater unity and renewed commitment to waging collective resistance.

Far from sowing fear, the slaughter galvanized the ranks of media, all of whom rose as one in condemning the slaughter and demanding justice. Thus, we have the November 23 Movement, organized by various media groups, including the NUJP, and joined by newspaper publishers and broadcast network organizations and officials.

NUJP chapters, press clubs, media associations and beat press corps issued statements and held various forms of protests including street marches, Masses, candle lighting, and rallies in work places and forums. Newspapers issued joint statements and pooled editorials and radio stations held brief but simultaneous blackouts.

Journalists also brought their condemnation and protests to cyberspace through social networking sites, blogs and email groups.

But perhaps, more than the newfound unity that journalists have found, the brightest lining in this year of darkness has been the realization that the media and their audience, the people, must stand together to resist what collectively is nothing less than an attack on the very foundations of our democracy and our very existence as a nation and people.

This was nowhere more evident than the historic December 9 rally at Mendiola, which media spearheaded but which saw civil society groups and other sectors joining them. Just as rousing was the response throughout the country and, yes, the world to the call of the NUJP and the International Federation of Journalists for a Global Day of Action Against Impunity.

Media groups and unions in 31 countries responded and wrote to the President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to pressure her administration in giving justice to the victims. An international solidarity mission also came to Philippines to express support to Filipino journalists and the families of the victims and to call for an end to impunity in the country.

Media groups, newspapers and television networks have also pledged and donated funds to the victims’ families.

Media groups also spoke as one in opposing the declaration of Martial Law in Maguindanao.

The same unity and resistance were demonstrated in opposing the passing of the RORB. At the start of the year, media groups formed a media alliance against the measure, lobbied in Congress, engaged the sponsors in forums and debates and held protest actions nationwide, joined by publishers, network officials and various media organizations.

The determined and widespread opposition prompted several senators to withdraw their support for the bill. It also helped in stalling if not effectively thwarting its passage.

The concerted efforts of media groups also significantly helped in the pushing for the Freedom of Information Act which passed on third reading at the Senate in December.

For the NUJP, 2009 was also a period of growth. It was this year that the number of our provincial and city chapters reached 62, the youngest being the Cebu, Butuan, Iligan, Masbate and Ilocos Sur chapters. NUJP also led and participated in successful press freedom campaigns. Its Media Safety Office, established together with the IFJ in 2005, continues to monitor and document attacks against journalists and advance the safety of journalists and media staff through safety trainings and campaigns.

The coming year brings daunting challenges, foremost of which is to find justice for the massacre victims and to help their families and fellow journalists traumatized by the killings.

As we pursue justice for the victims of the massacre and other murdered colleagues, we must, at the same time, work tirelessly to help uplift the working and living conditions of journalists especially those in the provinces and uphold ethical standards.

With continued unity and commitment to stand up and fight for justice and the truth, the Philippine Press will not only endure. It will overcome.

For reference:
Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
NUJP Chairman

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