Attacks on the Press 2000: Philippines

THE RAUCOUS PHILIPPINE PRESS TOOK CENTER STAGE as President Joseph Estrada faced mounting scandals and a televised impeachment trial in the Senate. The crisis began after a one-time crony of Estrada accused the former movie actor of accepting millions of dollars in illegal gambling payoffs. Estrada’s predicament was a riveting media event, and press investigations into the president’s murky personal finances helped prosecutors construct the charges against him.

In July, the respected Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) released a report on Estrada’s hidden assets. Based on searches of public records, the report inventoried shell companies, houses occupied by Estrada’s mistresses, and other properties. But because the presidential palace pressured numerous editors not to run the story, the PCIJ report went largely unnoticed at first. When Estrada’s former gambling buddy made his allegations in early October, however, newspapers and televisions stations scrambled to use the well-documented PCIJ material, which widened the scope of the story. Government investigators also introduced a series of the Center’s articles on Estrada into proceedings against him.

The turnaround in Estrada’s political fortunes was a rough sort of justice for many Philippine journalists, who had complained that Estrada’s operatives and allies used political and economic pressure to mute press criticism.

In late November, Estrada supporters demonstrated outside the Manila offices of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s biggest daily newspaper, which had been at odds with the president for years. Similarly, press outlets viewed as pro-Estrada were subject to the derision of the beleaguered chief executive’s opponents. Press advocates could take heart that, despite the seriousness of the charges against Estrada, the impeachment crisis was largely handled peacefully, through public debate and constitutional processes put in place since the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Elsewhere in the Philippines, however, Muslim secessionists kidnapped 15 journalists, most of them working for foreign news agencies and attempting to cover a months-long hostage crisis on the remote island of Jolo. Most of the press hostages were released via substantial ransoms to the kidnappers, leading some critics to accuse news agencies of unwittingly funding the secessionists and encouraging more kidnappings of journalists. In late July, most agencies temporarily pulled their crews out of Jolo to avoid new hostage crises. And on September 19, during a Philippine military assault against the rebels, the last of the hostages, Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura of France 2 television, escaped from their captors.

Despite its free and lively press, or perhaps because of it, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Since democracy was restored in 1986, 35 journalists have been killed while practicing their profession, most of them in rural areas. Almost all the murders remain unsolved. On November 17, outspoken radio commentator Olimpio Jalapit, Jr., was shot and killed in Pagadian City, on the island of Mindanao. A frequent critic of powerful local politicians, Jalapit received a death threat, sent as a text message to his mobile phone, on the morning he was killed.

Zamzamin Ampatuan, dxMS Radio

A bomb exploded outside the Catholic radio station dxMS in Cotabato City on the island of Mindanao during the broadcast of “Radio Kalimudan,” a daily program hosted by Ampatuan. The blast hit shortly after 8:00 p.m. and was apparently intended to kill Ampatuan, according to CPJ sources and local news reports quoting Cotabato City police.

Ampatuan said he had received several death threats from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of several groups fighting for an independent Islamic state on the island of Mindanao. “I am definite it was the handiwork of the MILF because I am exposing [in my program] their very terroristic nature and some of their very well-known atrocities in the community,” Ampatuan told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The bombing took place soon after the breakdown of peace talks between the government and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines. The MILF denied responsibility for the attack.

Zamzamin Ampatuan, dxMS Radio

At 10:15 p.m., armed men ambushed Ampatuan as he returned home after finishing his daily news and cultural affairs program “Radio Kalimudan,” broadcast by the Roman Catholic radio station dxMS in Cotabato City on the island of Mindanao. The gunmen killed one of Ampatuan’s military escorts, Arturo Maraya, and injured five other bodyguards. Ampatuan was wounded in the left foot.

The journalist had been taking extra security measures since February 27, when a bomb exploded outside the dxMS studios during the broadcast of “Radio Kalimudan.” At the time, Cotabato City police said the bomb’s intended target was Ampatuan, who told CPJ that he had received numerous death threats as a result of his on-air criticism of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and of Islamic extremism generally.

Police suspected that the MILF, a rebel group fighting for an independent Islamic state on Mindanao, was behind the assassination attempt, and Ampatuan said some of his assailants had been identified as MILF members.

CPJ sent a letter to Philippine president Joseph Estrada on April 5, expressing grave concern for Ampatuan’s safety, and urging a thorough investigation into the attack.

MAY 23
Vincent Rodriguez, dzMM Radio

Rodriguez, Pampanga correspondent for the Manila radio station dzMM, was killed on assignment when guerrillas ambushed the boat convoy in which he was traveling. Rodriguez was shot in the leg, then sustained a fatal fracture to the skull when his boat crashed.

The journalist was covering a tour of village development projects with Sasmuan mayor Catalina Bagasina and Jojo Osorio Ejercito, son of Philippine president Joseph Estrada. The attack occurred on the Malusac River in Sasmuan, Pampanga Province, about 50 kilometers (30 miles)north of Manila.

In an interview with a CPJ source, the Rebolusyonaryong Hukbong Bayan (RHB), a rebel group, claimed responsibility for the attack. A spokesman for the RHB, which is a breakaway faction of the communist New People’s Army, apologized for the journalist’s death and said local police were the intended target.

Andreas Lorenz, Der Spiegel

Lorenz, Beijing correspondent for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, was kidnapped at gunpoint by rebels on the southern island of Jolo. He was reporting on a hostage crisis that began on April 23 when Abu Sayyaf rebels abducted 21 people from a Malaysian diving resort.

One month earlier, rebels had detained Lorenz along with 10 other German journalists when the group arrived in their camp to interview the hostages. The journalists were released only after paying a ransom of US$25,000.

When Lorenz returned to Jolo for a second visit on June 27, he decided it was too dangerous to go near the rebel camps. But on July 2, Lorenz’s jeep was hijacked just outside Jolo town by about a dozen heavily armed men from a small splinter faction of the Abu Sayyaf, led by a man known as “Commander Rat.”

On July 6, CPJ sent a letter to President Joseph Estrada, calling on him to ensure that the Philippine government put its full weight behind efforts to free Lorenz. The rebels held Lorenz in a jungle camp until July 27, when Der Spiegel paid an unspecified ransom to secure his release.

Maryse Burgot, France 2
Jean-Jacques Le Garrec, France 2
Roland Madura, France 2

France 2 television reporter Burgot, cameraman Le Garrec, and sound engineer Madura were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels while covering a hostage crisis that began with the abduction of 21 people from a Malaysian diving resort on April 23.

Abu Sayyaf commander Galib Andang initially demanded 100 million pesos (US$2.2 million) for the journalists’ release, according to news reports.

Burgot was released on August 27 along with five other hostages under a deal brokered by Libya. Most of the remaining Western hostages were released by September 9, but rebels kept Le Garrec and Madura in an attempt to discourage a military attack.

The Philippine army launched an offensive against the Abu Sayyaf on September 16, forcing the rebels to flee with their hostages. On September 19, Le Garrec and Madura managed to escape their captors amid confusion caused by the Philippine military advance. They spent the night making their way through the jungle and the next morning flagged down a military truck, which took them to safety. Both journalists flew to Paris on the evening of September 20.

CPJ issued numerous news alerts and formal appeals throughout the hostage crisis, condemning the Abu Sayyaf’s behavior and urging the Philippine government to make every effort to free the captured journalists.

Val Cuenca, ABS-CBN Television
Maan Macapagal, ABS-CBN Television

A faction of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group kidnapped Cuenca, a cameraman for the national television network ABS-CBN, and Macapagal, a researcher for the same company, while the two were covering the hostage crisis on the southern island of Jolo.

According to their driver, Hassan Igasan, Cuenca and Macapagal were returning from an interview with Abu Sayyaf commander Radulon Sajiron when they were stopped by four men, who commandeered their vehicle for a short distance and then took them into the jungle on foot.

Abu Sayyaf is a loose association of separatist Muslim guerrillas based in the southern Philippines. The journalists were released on July 29, reportedly after Sajiron’s intervention.

Cuenca and Macapagal later told Agence France-Presse that their captors wanted a ransom to buy arms in the event of a military offensive. Both the Philippine government and ABS-CBN denied that any ransom had been paid for the journalists’ release.

Olimpio Jalapit, Jr., dxPR Radio

Jalapit, host of local radio station dxPR’s top-rated morning program, “Lampornas,” was killed in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, as he was leaving a parent-teacher association meeting.

An unidentified gunman riding tandem on a motorcycle shot Jalapit, 34, in the back of the head at 11:20 a.m. The journalist had received numerous death threats over the years, but the final warning came as a text message on his cellular phone at 9 a.m. on the morning of the murder: “I will kill you today,” it said, according to a translation published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Jalapit was Pagadian City’s leading media personality and had a reputation as a hard-hitting commentator who did not spare the powerful in his critiques.

CPJ sources believed that Jalapit had been murdered as a result of his frank on-air discussions of sensitive issues such as political corruption, illegal gambling operations, the drug trade, and armed separatist movements in the southern Philippines.

Just days before his murder, Jalapit was suspended from hosting “Lampornas” for one week, beginning November 13, after Environment Secretary Antonio Cerilles and his wife, Rep. Aurora Cerilles, registered a complaint about the program with the Manila headquarters of Radio Mindanao Network, of which dxPR is an affiliate. The journalist was on his way to a meeting with Representative Cerilles when he was killed. Secretary Cerilles and Representative Cerilles have both denied any involvement in the murder.

On November 29, CPJ sent a letter to President Joseph Estrada, urging him to ensure that the inquiry into Jalapit’s murder was pursued vigorously. CPJ also wrote to Federico Opinion, director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), requesting information about the status of the inquiry. The NBI had not made any arrests by year’s end.