Attacks on the Press 2002: Philippines

Raucous and uninhibited, the Philippine press continues to be one of Asia’s freest. There are few government controls on the media, newspapers do not have to be licensed, and broadcasters are largely left alone. The private Association of Philippine Broadcasters regulates itself, unlike in many other Asian countries, where the government performs this function.

Unfortunately, freedom does not always translate into safety or respect for journalists, especially in rural areas. Thirty-nine journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since democracy was restored there in 1986, making the country one of the most perilous in the world for members of the media. No one has been convicted in any of the murders.

On the evening of May 13, journalist Edgar Damalerio was gunned down in full view of the local police station in Pagadian City, a port town on the southern island of Mindanao. An award-winning radio commentator and newspaper reporter, Damalerio frequently criticized police abuses and political corruption. Two witnesses to the murder came forward and identified a local police officer as the killer, but months after the slaying, prosecutors and local officials were still dragging their feet. In August, a third witness in the case was murdered in an ambush near Pagadian City. At year’s end, the alleged assailant remained free, while the witnesses and Damalerio’s family feared for their lives.

Officials in the capital, Manila, responded to pleas for justice by promising to move the investigation forward, but their efforts yielded few results. A CPJ investigation into the murder found evidence that local political pressure was delaying the prosecution of the alleged assailant.

In August, an unidentified gunman murdered journalist Sonny Alcantara, a publisher and cable-television commentator in the town of San Pablo, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Manila, as he was driving a motorcycle to his office. Local police and the journalist’s colleagues believe that Alcantara was murdered because of his reporting, which had angered local officials.

Journalists also faced dangers while covering the conflict between the government and Muslim separatist rebels in Mindanao. Armed men in a rebel-infested area of Mindanao detained a reporter and a cameraman from the Philippine’s GMA television network for six days in October. Philippine military authorities, meanwhile, mistakenly identified reporter Bernadette Tamayo as a member of the rebel Abu Sayyaf group in July by putting her picture in a wanted poster circulated in Mindanao. The military later apologized.

In recent years, journalists covering Abu Sayyaf have frequently been kidnapped by the group, which uses ransom payments to finance its activities. In January, cable-television reporter Arlyn de la Cruz disappeared in the jungles of southern Mindanao while searching for the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas holding U.S. hostages Gracia and Martin Burnham. De la Cruz, who has had frequent contact with the Abu Sayyaf, was later reportedly kidnapped by a competing armed group. She was released after nearly four months in captivity, after well-known Philippine senator and television celebrity Loren Legarda brokered her release.

While the constitution and national law guarantee press freedom, some local mayors seem undeterred when it comes to harassing radio stations. Local mayors closed two stations owned by the national Bombo Radyo network, one in Mindanao and another on the island of Luzon, in February over supposed business-permit violations. The Luzon station, in the town of Cauayan, was shuttered after the mayor sent armed men to take it over. The station remained off the air for several months before legal action reversed the order. A similar incident in October resulted in the closure of a locally owned radio and television station in Lucena City, south of Manila.

In all three cases, station owners claimed that the mayors were retaliating for the news outlets’ critical coverage of the local administrations. “It seems they are using their local muscle to fight us,” said an executive at Bombo Radyo. “It is their way of challenging press freedom.”

February 9

All journalists

The Philippine military warned journalists of threats from Abu Sayyaf, an armed group active in the southern Philippines that U.S. and Philippine officials have linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, which is accused of masterminding the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

More than 600 U.S. troops arrived in early 2002 on the southern island of Basilan to help the Philippine army in its efforts to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic state. On February 9, Capt. Harold Cabunoc, who commands Philippine Scout Ranger troops operating on Basilan, warned all foreign journalists about the risk of kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf and advised them against traveling to the island alone. More than 100 journalists were in Zamboanga City on the island of Mindanao, near Basilan, to cover joint military exercises by Philippine and U.S. troops.

Philippine officials say three foreign reporters escaped kidnapping attempts, according to local press reports. On February 8, free-lance journalists Christopher Johnson, a Canadian, and Urban Hamid, a French national, were boarding a ferry to Basilan when two men approached them, saying they were soldiers sent to escort the journalists to the island. Johnson and Hamid became suspicious and reported the encounter to local military authorities, who denied having sent an escort.

In a similar incident, on February 11, two unidentified men approached Japanese journalist Jun Ida, Manila bureau chief for the Tokyo-based newspaper Mainichi, just after he arrived in Basilan. The men offered to guide Ida to Abu Sayyaf hideouts, according to local news reports. Ida declined the offer and reported it to the authorities. Philippine military authorities claimed the incidents were kidnapping attempts by members of the Abu Sayyaf, said local press reports. These claims have not been independently verified.

In his February 9 announcement, Captain Cabunoc asked foreign journalists to notify the military before arriving on Basilan to report on the military exercises. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas kidnapped a total of 15 journalists during a hostage crisis on the island of Jolo, near Basilan. Most of the journalists were released after their news organizations paid hefty ransoms to the kidnappers. Local journalists have expressed concern that those events set a precedent and encouraged rebel groups to kidnap journalists as a source of revenue.

February 12

Bombo Radyo

The private broadcaster Bombo Radyo, in the city of Cauayan, was forcibly closed by a group of armed men on the orders of the local mayor’s office. The men cut the radio station’s power lines and padlocked its fuse boxes. Mayor Caesar Dy said the managers had failed to get the proper operating permit from the city government. However, the station manager claimed that the closure stemmed from news reports that had criticized the mayor.

May 13

Edgar Damalerio, Zamboanga Scribe, DXKP Radio

For full details on this case, click here.

May 22

Bombo Radyo

A bomb exploded at about 1 a.m. at the entrance of the private broadcaster Bombo Radyo, in Cagayan de Oro City, on the southern island of Mindanao. According to local news reports, no one was injured in the attack, but the blast caused superficial damage to the exterior of the building. The attack did not affect the radio station’s ability to broadcast.

Bombo Radyo is known for its coverage of local crime and official corruption. Station manager Jun Albino told Agence France-Presse that the attack came either in retaliation for his station’s reporting or because of a rivalry with another radio station. No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, and police have not named any suspects.

In preceding months, several bomb explosions struck the island of Mindanao, where separatist Muslim guerrilla groups have been battling the Philippine army. Journalists in the region are frequently targets of violent attacks.

July 9

Bernadette Tamayo, People’s Journal

Tamayo, a veteran military correspon- dent with the People’s Journal newspaper, announced to the media that military intelligence officials on the southern island of Mindanao had issued a poster mistakenly identifying her as a member of the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group. The poster included a photograph of Tamayo and advertised a 1 million peso (US$20,000) bounty for her life.

Tamayo told CPJ that the error could be fatal, especially in the strife-torn southern region, where the Philippine military has declared an all-out war against the guerrillas. Tamayo’s picture was taken with members of the Abu Sayyaf in May 2000 when she was conducting an interview for her newspaper.

Tamayo criticized military officials for failing to corroborate the information in the poster and not checking her identity. “It was haphazard and dangerous,” Tamayo told CPJ. She said that although military officials have cleared her of any involvement with the guerrilla group , she remains concerned that she may be harmed if she returns to Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf guerrillas have been involved in kidnap-for-ransom activities in southern Mindanao and have also been targeted by Philippine army units being trained by the U.S. military.

August 22

Sonny Alcantara, “Quo Vadis San Pablo,” Kokus

For full details on this case, click here.

September 28

Gilbert Ordiales, GMA
Carlo Lorenzo, GMA

Lorenzo and Ordiales, a reporter and cameraman, respectively, for the television network GMA, were held captive on the southern island of Jolo, Sulu Province, for five days before being released unharmed on October 3. The journalists were in Jolo to report on rebel groups in the region, according to Philippine and international news reports. Before the men disappeared, they had made arrangements to interview three Indonesian fishermen being held hostage by rebels on the island.

On October 4, in an account published on the Web site of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lorenzo said that soldiers held them up once they arrived in the village of Kagay on September 28. “I thought they were our protectors,” Lorenzo told the Inquirer. But then “they started to open our bags. They took my cell phone, calling cards, notebooks, tape recorders and the handy camera.” According to the Inquirer, Lorenzo said the soldiers left them in the custody of local villagers, who later freed them.

Lorenzo later retracted his statement, saying that he did not know if the men who had held them up were in fact members of the military. GMA issued a statement saying that, “Lorenzo never directly implicated the military in his and Ordiales’ abduction.” The Inquirer stood by its original story. Julie Alipala, the reporter who wrote the article, received several threatening messages because of the story.

In October, police on Jolo Island arrested Hadja Jarma Mohammed Imran, a military informant who had helped Lorenzo and Ordiales arrange the interviews, on kidnapping charges, according to CPJ sources in the Philippines. She denied the allegations. Three activists with the Islamic separatist group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the GMA crew were also called as witnesses in court proceedings, which are expected to begin in early 2003.

During 2002, the Philippine army escalated efforts to fight several rebel groups in Sulu Province. The armed group Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic state, has sought refuge in Sulu since 2001, when the military waged an intensive campaign–with assistance from U.S. troops–against the group’s former stronghold of nearby Basilan Island. The MNLF, which also advocates an independent Muslim state, signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996, but a breakaway rebel faction is still active in the province.