The more things change, the more they remain the same. This is the grim realization as we lay our colleague, Mati City’s Nestor Libaton, to rest today.
This could not be truer for the independent Philippines press under President Benigno Aquino III, who promised to be the exact opposite of his predecessor.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, of course, presided over the bloodiest period thus far for Filipino journalists and media workers, with 140 perishing under her watch, including the 32 who died in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre, the single deadliest attack on the press ever.
Alas, under the current president, the frequency not only of media killings but all assaults, physical and otherwise, on the press has hardly abated.
Even before Mr. Aquino marks his second year in office, 12 journalists and media workers have already been murdered, or roughly one every two months.
Overall, this may still be half the death rate under Arroyo.
But this year, we have lost five in as many months: General Santos’ Christopher Guarin on January 5, Davao City’s Aldion Lavao on April 8, San Pablo City’s Michael Calanasan on April 24,Koronadal’s Rommel Palma on April 30, and Mati’s Nestor Libaton on May 8 – the last three killed within just 15 days.
The numbers might have been worse had the attempts to kill Fernan Angeles of Pasig last March 12 and Iloilo City’s Fernando Gabio on March 3 succeeded.
There has also been a spike in threats and harassment, with at least 13 cases reported to us, two of these – in Cotabato City and Northern Samar – targeting not individuals but whole groups of journalists.
These include the recent resumption of death threats against Cagayan de Oro broadcaster Michael James “Dacoycoy” Licuanan, who survived an assassination attempt in November last year, and the May 10 threat against Mati’s Lito Labra after discussing illegal mining, illegal logging and the murder, just two days earlier, of Libaton.
At least six libel cases, which are mostly intended to muzzle the media rather than seek redress, have been filed, including the P100-million suit by Iloilo City Mayor Jed Mabilog against a columnist and his editor, and the P75-million suit by Manny Pacquiao against NUJP General Santos chairman Edwin Espejo. Bombo Radyo’s Janjan Macailing on the other hand was slapped with three libel suits, filed in three different areas all outside his province, courtesy of a customs officer.
And there is the physical assault by the chief of police of Olongapo City on Randy Datu, who was forcibly barred from covering a hostage-taking incident.
With the 2013 elections looming, we fear that the attacks against members of media will escalate, as those who wish to silence criticisms, through threats or bullets, seem to be making their moves early, based on reports received by NUJP.
Why, in a country that boasts of being not just a democracy but the freest in this part of the world, do these things happen? How can a supposedly democratic government and society allow the slaughter of so many members of one of democracy’s cornerstones – a free press?
Again, we stress, we see no indication that the murder of individual journalists is part of state policy.
But it may as well be.
For the impunity with which media workers are murdered, attacked, threatened, harassed and sued stems from the same impunity with which extrajudicial murders, attacks, threats, arbitrary arrests, torture, forced displacements, trumped up charges and harassment that, as documented time and again, are routinely committed as part of the state’s policy towards those it disagrees with, or who disagree with it.
Yes, it may as well be.
For the pattern of most of our colleagues’ murders tends to indicate that these were ordered by the corrupt political leaders that infest our regions and provinces and cities and towns, who administration after administration, bar none, have allowed to amass vast wealth – invariably ill gotten – and maintain armed retainers in exchange for their loyalty to the central government and their help in maintaining control of their bailiwicks.
It may well be when the president takes to bashing the media for being critical and independent, betraying a mindset no different from that which shut us down with the declaration of Martial Law in 1972 and, more recently, one that hailed Jovito Palparan as a hero, thus encouraging and emboldening those who would seek to silence the independent press.
It very well could be since, notwithstanding Aquino’s professed commitment to freedom of expression, we are no closer to seeing the passage of a Freedom of Information law or decriminalizing libel.
Yet, it is also more than government apathy’s towards assaults on the press and outright hostility towards an independent media.
There are also the systemic abuses within the increasingly profit-driven industry, where very often media workers are forced into situations that push, even force, them into ethically compromising, therefore dangerous, situations.
Substandard wages, the lack of security of tenure and benefits, the deprivation of our right to organize, increasing contractualization and outsourcing, harsh – even dangerous – working conditions, requiring workers to solicit ads, in many instances the commissions taking the place of salaries, practically turning corruption into a commercial enterprise by selling airtime to unscrupulous politicians who then put colleagues desperate for work in an increasingly shrinking job market in the line of fire, and many other acts of commission or omission that push many media workers into compromising situations or, worse, making compromising choices, and constitute what can only be called unethical ownership.
And there is us.
It is time we, individually and collectively, reflect and act on the hard questions that confront us.
We need to close ranks once and for all to defend not just our rights and welfare but also of the people whose right to information should be our utmost priority.
We need to close ranks once and for all and demand that government put an end to the impunity that has cost so many lives and trampled so many rights, not just because it promised to but because it is its duty to do so.
To do less than this is to consign ourselves to a continuing nightmare of bloodshed and violated freedoms.
Nestor Burgos Jr.
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