Murder on the Airwaves

Calls for justice grow louder as corruption claims radio broadcasters in the Philippines

The Standard of Hong Kong
August 23, 2005

By Abi Wright

More than three years have passed since journalist Edgar Damalerio was fatally shot on a crowded street in the port city of Pagadian on the southern island of Mindanao.

At 32, Damalerio was well-known for denouncing corruption as a radio commentator and managing editor of a weekly newspaper. Two witnesses riding in Damalerio’s jeep immediately identified a local police officer as the gunman, but the road to justice has been long and deadly. One witness, Edgar Amoro, was killed in February. The other, Edgar Ongue, survived an assassination attempt last year only because his assailant’s gun malfunctioned.

Now under 24-hour armed guard, Ongue lived to testify against Damalerio’s accused killer this summer in a trial that – like Ongue himself – might beat the odds by holding a suspect accountable for a journalist’s murder.

Damalerio’s slaying illustrates an alarming trend in the Philippines. Broadcasters from rural provinces -where the power of radio is strong and the rule of law is weak – are being shot and killed in record numbers for what they say on the air, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.

Seventeen radio commentators have been shot and killed since 2000, CPJ found, making the Philippines the most murderous country in the world for journalists. To date, there has not been a single conviction in any of the killings.

After speaking this summer with dozens of journalists, government officials and analysts across the Philippines, CPJ found that violence against broadcasters highlights the larger crisis of crime and corruption in this nation of 7,000 islands and 82 million people. As in Damalerio’s case, government officials are suspected of involvement in half of the murder cases. Little concrete legal action has been taken against the majority of suspects –despite misleading government data that classifies cases as “solved” at the mere identification of a suspect. Under threat from powerful local officials and warlords, witnesses to murders are frequently too fearful to testify, further impeding prosecution.

Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, and her three-year-old son are in the witness protection program along with Ongue. Meeting them for a recent interview required passing through two rooms guarded by armed men into a windowless back room where they sat with three more armed guards.
Gemma, whose family has been threatened even as the case is pending, looked tired and nervous as she explained how she lobbied to move the trial from Pagadian to Cebu last year in hopes of getting a fair trial, away from the corrupt local officials in her former hometown.

The original investigation by Pagadian police was marred by a number of irregularities, from failing to photograph the crime scene to failing to lock up the suspect for more than two years.

Because Damalerio was a respected journalist known for exposing corruption, his case received national attention and raised the profiles of other journalist murder cases.

Families of other slain journalists have followed the case closely. Like Gemma, some are now appealing to the Supreme Court to move the trials out of their hometowns where vested interests can corrupt the legal process.

In interviews with journalists around the country, many also pointed to problems within the media community itself. They said an absence of professional standards among some broadcast journalists and an ineffective broadcast regulator have contributed to a climate in which violence is the primary means of accountability.

Damalerio hailed from Mindanao, one of the deadliest regions in the Philippines for broadcasters. Six other radio commentators have been murdered there over the last five years, CPJ research shows.

Unlike many of his slain colleagues, Damalerio held a valid accreditation with the country’s independent broadcast regulator, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a Philippines press group. And while he was a freelance radio commentator, he was not engaged in “block-timing,” a controversial practice in which broadcasters lease airtime from station owners and solicit their own sponsors.

Of the 17 broadcasters murdered since 2000, at least seven were block-timers, according to CMFR. Critics say block-timers are more likely to engage in questionable ethics, such as basing their commentary on who pays them.

In this volatile landscape, journalists and others say some short-term changes are essential to better the odds for justice. They include moving trials to neutral venues, providing effective witness protection, applying national investigative resources to address violence against journalists and developing enforceable broadcast rules, particularly for block-timers.

Stemming the tide of violence fully, they say, will likely require large-scale reform addressing police, judicial, government and media accountability.

In the meantime, even one conviction might help. As the trial of her husband’s accused killer proceeds, Gemma said she hopes a guilty verdict will begin to halt the violence. “Hitmen and police will be too afraid to kill again,” she said. “It will be a lesson to them that crime does not pay.”

Abi Wright is Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.