Attacks on the Press 2003: The Philippines

The overwhelming issue facing the Philippine press in 2003 was the increasing number of journalists murdered with impunity. In the last year alone, at least five journalists were slain in the course of their work–a toll surpassed only by war-related killings of journalists in Iraq. But in the Philippines, this violence is not a temporary aberration; it has become the normal state of affairs, year after year. While the Philippine media have been among the freest in the developing world since democracy was restored in 1986, more than 40 journalists there have been slain. No one has been convicted in any of the killings.

Most of those murdered have been provincial radio journalists, frequently on the strife-torn island of Mindanao. Often, the slayings came in revenge for outspoken criticism of powerful local political leaders. Nationally known radio commentator Juan “Jun” Pala, who was gunned down near his home in September, had already survived two attempts on his life. Pala, a hard-line anticommunist conservative and critic of the mayor of his hometown of Davao City, was, like many Philippine radio journalists, opinionated, enmeshed in local politics, and vocal in his diatribes against his enemies. Before his murder, Pala accused the mayor on the air of plotting to kill him.

Despite his background, Pala’s death brought condemnation even from mainstream press groups. “He may have used his radio program for his own interests,” said the National Union of Journalists in a statement, “but his murder and its particular brutality reinforces the idea that, in this country, people who dare to speak out–for whatever reason–are fair game, that violence is the only response to the power of the word.”

Unlike Pala, it is rare that those killed are known beyond their communities, so they are easy targets. On May 17, unidentified men ambushed Apolinario “Polly” Pobeda, a commentator on radio station DWTI in Lucena City, in southern Luzon, while he was riding his motorcycle to the studio. The suspects, who have been arrested, are reportedly bodyguards for the son of the town’s mayor, whom Pobeda frequently targeted in his broadcasts, according to press reports. The mayor has denied any involvement in the killing.

Other journalists killed for their work in the Philippines in 2003 were: Bonifacio Gregorio, of Dyaryo Banat newspaper in La Paz, Tarlac (July 8); Noel Villarante, of DZJV Radio and the Laguna Score newspaper in Santa Cruz, Laguna (August 19); and Rico Ramirez, of DXSF Radio, San Francisco, Agusan del Sur (August 20). The only link between these victims is that they were all working as low-paid journalists in provincial areas, and that no one has been charged with their murders.

Taking account of this carnage, several Philippine press organizations joined forces in early 2003 to form the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition devoted to providing assistance to victims’ families and pressuring the government to respond forcefully to the murders. In November, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo offered a 1 million peso (US$18,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible for killing a journalist in the last five years.

The reward may be more of a public relations stunt than a serious attempt to pursue justice, since deep problems in the criminal justice system often keep suspects from being brought to trial. The high-profile murder of broadcaster Edgar Damalerio in Mindanao in April 2002 is a case in point. Two witnesses identified a local police officer by name as the assailant. Police and prosecutors failed to act for months until local and international pressure finally forced a judge to issue an arrest warrant for the suspect in February 2003. But it was too late. The officer, who had been under house arrest in police headquarters, disappeared shortly after the warrant was issued and has not been seen since. Damalerio’s widow, who has been in hiding since the killing, told CPJ that she and her family still face death threats because of their desire to push for justice in the case.

Philippine journalists suffer from poor working conditions and low pay. Corruption within the press is also common. Frequently, politicians and other powerful figures will pay radio commentators and newspaper columnists to attack their enemies or promote their agendas in the media. Companies and government agencies routinely offer stipends to favored journalists, and some reporters extort money from politicians by threatening to write negative stories unless they are paid.

In terms of safety, a huge gap exists between conditions for journalists working for national outlets in Manila and their colleagues in the provinces. In rural areas, members of the press must face criminal justice systems that are often at the mercy of local political bosses, as well as guerrilla warfare in such places as Mindanao–all of which becomes especially dangerous when journalists speak out against abuses and corruption.

Journalists in Manila tend to be hit by lawsuits rather than bullets or fists. In August, officials arrested well-known Daily Tribune Publisher and Editor Ninez Cacho-Olivares after she wrote an article accusing a powerful local lawyer with ties to the president of trying to extort money from a company involved in the construction of a new terminal at the Manila international airport. The lawyer filed a criminal libel suit against her, and she was taken to a police station, where Olivares appeared on TV and radio to denounce the charges. By year’s end, the case had not yet gone to trial.

The murders and other pressures have done little, however, to silence the outspoken press in the Philippines. Paradoxically, violence committed with impunity in the provinces coexists with some very high-caliber journalism produced in Manila. The national press, both print and broadcast, is very outspoken, with politicians generally courting journalists, not attacking them. Philippine journalists can–and have–brought down presidents and fought long battles to preserve and expand their freedoms. The Philippines has the oldest independent press in Asia and was the first country in the region to have private broadcasting stations. Much of the Philippine media are seen as good examples of professionalism throughout the region, making the record of killings and violence in the country all the more troubling.