Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno told a visiting CPJ delegation in July that he would personally seek justice for the unsolved killings of journalists and use his judicial authority to better protect press freedom. “The fact that the killings remain unsolved heightens public distrust in our system of justice,” Puno told CPJ. The senior judge was fresh off a national summit that he had convened to examine a rash of extrajudicial killings committed nationwide in recent years.
Puno’s pledge follows President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s move in 2004 to create a special police task force dedicated to investigating journalist murders. Police investigators said they had identified suspects in nearly half of the 27 cases they examined, but they had managed convictions in only two cases since the task force was created.
According to CPJ research, at least 32 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work in the Philippines since 1992, making it the world’s fifth-deadliest nation for journalists during that time period. The impunity rate in these cases is more than 90 percent, CPJ research shows. This record, in part, prompted CPJ to launch a new global campaign against impunity; the effort will initially focus on the Philippines and Russia, two of the worst nations in solving crimes against the press.
Much of the aggression has followed a sadly familiar pattern: Journalists, usually in a provincial town, take on a local corruption issue and wind up being attacked or killed. Often, journalists have political affiliations of their own, making the motive for the attack difficult to determine.
The violence dipped in 2007, when two journalists were slain under unclear circumstances, CPJ research shows. Hernani Pastolero, 64, editor-in-chief of the community newspaper Lightning Courier Weekly, was shot twice in the head in front of his home in Sultan Kudarat township, on the southern island of Mindanao. His unidentified assassin escaped on foot, according to local media reports. Local Police Superintendent Joel Goltiao said his office compiled a list of suspects in the February 20 slaying, but he declined to comment on a possible motive. Local media reported that investigators were exploring Pastolero’s connection to a dispute between residential lot owners and a large private landholder.
In another emblematic case, gunmen killed commentator Ferdinand Lintuan in downtown Davao City, Mindanao, on December 24. Lintuan, 51, was a “block time” broadcaster—an independent commentator who leased airtime from local radio station DXGO—and a columnist for the regional English-language daily Sun Star. Two masked, motorcycle-riding assailants shot Lintuan as he was driving his Volkswagen with two radio station colleagues as passengers. The passengers were uninjured in the attack, and no motive was immediately established. Well-known for his criticism of local politicians, Lintuan had recently decried alleged corruption in a local development project and illegal logging activities. The Sun Star said that Lintuan had survived an August 1987 attack inside another Davao radio station. Three people died in that attack.
The 2007 slayings each drew an immediate national response, with Arroyo dispatching the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation to assist in the probes. CPJ is investigating to determine whether the slayings were work-related.
Attacks on journalists did not come in isolation. Early in the year, the human rights group Karapatan (Rights) counted 832 extrajudicial killings since 2001, when Arroyo came to power. Few, if any, had been investigated by the police, allowing an air of impunity to flourish.
In February, Arroyo was hit with a one-two blow. Philip Alston, U.N. Human Rights Council special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, ended a 10-day mission by demanding that an undisclosed government report on the killings be released. Forced into a corner, the administration publicly issued a report that found “elements in the military” were responsible for many of the extrajudicial killings. The report was compiled by a government-backed commission headed by retired Philippine Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo.
These reports, while not addressing journalists specifically, highlighted the inability of local governments to conduct thorough, effective, and unbiased investigations—despite pressure from central authorities. CPJ’s own research has found a longstanding pattern in which local officials are implicated in journalist murders but are protected by corrupt provincial police and judges.
In an October special report, “The Road to Justice,” CPJ board member and veteran Philippine journalist Sheila Coronel described this culture of impunity and pointed to one of the rare exceptions—the successful prosecution of three men in the 2004 murder of columnist Marlene Garcia-Esperat. Advocates used several techniques effectively in the Garcia-Esperat case: hiring a private attorney to assist prosecutors, securing a change in venue from a corrupt local court, providing protection to witnesses, and drawing wide public attention to the crime. CPJ joined with Philippine press groups in 2007 to push prosecutors to go further in the case by filing charges against two agriculture department officials accused of ordering the murder.
Despite its poor record in fighting these crimes, the government did not shy away from bringing new legal pressure against journalists. On February 14, Arroyo’s government filed incitement to sedition charges against the Daily Tribune Publisher Ninez Cacho-Olivares and two columnists, Ramon Seneres and Herman Tiu-Laurel, in Manila’s Metropolitan Trial Court. Prosecutor Philip Kimpo said that articles published in the paper were designed to “lead or stir up the people against the lawful authorities, namely, the president of the Philippines, and disturb the peace of the community.” The case was pending in late year.
Arroyo’s government had a history of harassing the Daily Tribune, which frequently published articles critical of her administration. Police raided and confiscated materials from the newspaper’s offices in February 2006, soon after Arroyo declared martial law to clamp down on an alleged coup attempt by her political opponents. The Supreme Court later ruled that the raid was in violation of the Philippine Constitution, citing provisions in the charter that protect press freedom.
Journalists faced new uncertainties when, on July 15, the government enacted antiterrorism legislation. A top Justice Ministry official told reporters the law would, in certain instances, allow the government to wiretap journalists if they were “suspected of co-mingling with terror suspects.” The Human Security Act broadly defines terrorism and calls for the arrest of any accomplices to terror-related crimes. CPJ and local press freedom groups expressed concerns that the law leaves open the possibility that journalists could be considered accomplices to terrorism if they merely interviewed or reported the statements of those considered to be terror suspects.
Criminal defamation cases also made news in 2007. The outcomes for journalists were mixed.
On March 7, Gemma Bagauaya, editor of the online magazine Newsbreak, was arrested on a criminal libel complaint filed by Luis Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur province. She posted 10,000 pesos (US$230) in bail and was released the same day. Newsbreak Managing Editor Glenda Gloria and Editor-in-Chief Marites Vitug were also charged but not detained. The charges stemmed from a February 12 article written by Gloria that identified Singson as one of five key people who helped Arroyo survive the political fallout from an election-rigging scandal that broke out in 2005.
But on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo announced in a government-released statement that he would drop a rash of pending defamation complaints related to the scandal. A new outlook on life apparently drove the decision: Arroyo said he withdrew the cases because he was “grateful for surviving a delicate open-heart surgery.” Arroyo had filed 46 different complaints against 11 journalists and was pursuing a total of 70 million pesos (US$1.6 million) in damages in related civil suits. More than 40 journalists had filed a countersuit, accusing Arroyo of using the courts to harass the media.