Although the Philippines has one of the freest presses in Asia, the country was the deadliest in the region for journalists for the second consecutive year. Eight journalists—primarily rural radio broadcasters—were gunned down in retaliation for their work in 2004. (Five reporters died in the line of duty in 2003, according to CPJ research.) Worldwide, the media casualty rate in the Philippines was second only to Iraq.
Far from any international war zone, the press in the Philippines did their combat duty at home, where they faced political corruption, a breakdown in law and order, and a widespread culture of impunity that perpetuated violence against journalists.
Six of the eight journalists murdered in 2004 were known for hard-hitting political reporting or commentary on local community radio stations, according to CPJ research. Rampant corruption and powerful criminal groups plague the political system in the country’s rural areas, making it very dangerous for reporters to criticize or anger provincial politicians, according to local journalists. Provincial leaders from family-run political dynasties sometimes abuse their power to dominate entire regions, controlling even the local police.
In February, gunmen shot and killed outspoken radio commentator Rowell Endrinal in the eastern Albay Province while he was leaving his house for work. Endrinal hosted a political commentary program on DZRC radio, published the regional newspaper Bicol Metro News, and was known for his criticism of corrupt local officials and criminal gangs. In June, Elpidio Binoya, another radio commentator who frequently delivered pointed political commentaries on Radyo Natin, was ambushed on the southern island of Mindanao. Binoya had been beaten a week before the murder, and a local police chief told The Associated Press that the journalist had enemies among local politicians.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo condemned the killings and ordered the creation of a police task force dedicated to solving the murders of journalists. But the death toll mounted later in the summer, when two more journalists were shot dead in one week. Roger Mariano, a radio commentator from the northern Ilocos Norte Province, was shot in the head while driving home on July 31. Local journalists said Mariano’s murder came in retaliation for his aggressive journalism, and that he had denounced illegal gambling in his final broadcast. Five days later, Arnnel Manalo—a correspondent for the Manila-based tabloid Bulgar and the local radio station DZRH—was killed on his way home by gunmen allegedly hired by a local politician in Batangas Province, 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of the capital, Manila.
Outraged by the murders, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines staged demonstrations attended by hundreds of journalists around the country to protest the violence and demand justice for the slain reporters. Journalists also formed their own task force to help probe the killings in cooperation with the Philippine National Police. CPJ spotlighted the issue by naming the Philippines to its annual list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.”
Government officials have offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of anyone connected with the murders. Police officials even suggested that journalists arm themselves. But local press freedom advocates accused the government of paying lip service to the problem. At year’s end, there were no convictions in any of the eight murder cases—or in any of 48 journalist murders since democracy was restored in the Philippines in 1986, according to CPJ research.
International attention grew as the carnage continued into the fall. Tabloid correspondent Romeo, or Romy, Binungcal was killed by gunmen who fired five shots at him at close range in Bataan Province on September 29. He was known for his reporting on corrupt officials. A radio commentator who frequently spoke out against illegal gambling and the local drug trade, Eldy Sablas, was shot dead October 19.
Then, in one bloody weekend, two more journalists were slain. An unidentified gunman shot photographer Gene Boyd Lumawag, of the MindaNews news service, in the head while he was on assignment in Jolo, the capital of the southern Sulu Province, on November 12. The next day, radio commentator Herson Hinolan was gunned down in the restroom of a local store in Kalibo, in the central Panay Island.
Some potential breakthroughs were reported. Two suspects in Binoya’s murder surrendered to police in August; one was a political leader suspected of masterminding the killing. The same month, two suspects were identified in the Manalo slaying; a local politician was implicated in that case, too.
Progress was also made in an earlier high-profile case: the 2002 shooting death of journalist Edgar Damalerio. The main suspect, former police officer Guillermo Wapile, surrendered to authorities on September 12. Witnesses identified Wapile as the gunman responsible for shooting Damalerio in Pagadian City, on the southern island of Mindanao. Although investigators recommended at the time that Wapile be arrested, he was only briefly detained and released in May 2002. In January 2003, he was taken into custody again but escaped two days later before a judge could issue an arrest warrant. Wapile was formally charged with Damalerio’s murder, and he was expected to go on trial in 2005, according to local journalists.