The epidemic of murderous attacks on the Philippine press corps finally forced the government to reverse its longtime denial of the problem and to step up efforts to combat the violence. Some limited progress in law enforcement, a landmark conviction in one murder case, and growing support for broadcast reforms could signal a change for the better for the Philippine press.
Four journalists were killed in retaliation for their work in 2005, down from a record high of eight in 2004—and bringing to 22 the number of Philippine journalists murdered since 2000, according to CPJ research. The death toll drew international attention when CPJ named the country the most murderous in the world for journalists in a May report.
The brazen March murder of a crusading female columnist sparked outrage among press freedom groups and the public. A gunman walked into the home of Marlene Garcia-Esperat on Easter weekend and shot her in the head in front of her two children. Garcia-Esperat had made many enemies while investigating corruption for her weekly column in the Midland Review on the southern island of Mindanao. Task Force Newsmen, a Philippines National Police unit launched by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 to track down journalists’ killers, arrested four suspects two weeks later. The suspects accused two Mindanao agriculture officials of plotting the murder.
Tensions between the press and the government came to a head in May when two more journalists were murdered in less than a week. The killings came just as CPJ released “Marked for Death,” a worldwide analysis of press attacks that found the Philippines to be the most murderous country. The designation startled many Filipinos, who had grown numb to the ongoing violence. Efforts by CPJ and other domestic and international press freedom organizations to raise awareness of the deadly trend had been rebuffed by government officials time and again. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye discounted a 2004 CPJ assessment as “misplaced and misleading,” and he initially dismissed the “most murderous” label as “unfair and exaggerated.”
But two days after CPJ released “Marked for Death,” the death toll grew higher still. Radio broadcaster Klein Cantoneros died on May 4 after being shot several times by motorcycle-riding gunmen in Dipolog City on Mindanao. Cantoneros, who leased airtime through a controversial practice known as “block-timing,” was known for hard-hitting commentary in which he accused local officials of corruption and illegal gambling. He fired back at his assailants with a .45-caliber pistol but succumbed to his injuries later that day. In September, police arrested a suspect after a witness identified him as one of three gunmen.
On May 10, publisher Philip Agustin was shot in the head through an open window in his daughter’s home, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Manila. Agustin was about to release a special edition of his paper, the Starline Times Recorder, dedicated to corruption and illegal logging in the nearby town of Dingalan. He was also a critic of the mayor of Dingalan, Jaime Ylarde. The gunman, arrested four days later, accused the mayor of plotting the murder, according to news reports. Ylarde has repeatedly denied any involvement and has not been charged.
Outraged at the growing death toll, reporters in Manila started a group called ARMED—the Association of Responsible Media—to train journalists in firearms and security issues. Images of gun-toting journalists on firing ranges received widespread international coverage, but local Philippine groups like the National Union of Journalists questioned the wisdom of adding more firepower to an already deadly situation.
Facing a new wave of violence and international attention, the government finally modified its public response to the killings. Arroyo called the murders of journalists “acts of violence against the nation itself.” She launched a five million peso (US$92,500) Press Freedom Fund to offer rewards for information on the killings, instituted witness-protection programs, and assured the country that “the whole criminal justice system has been alerted and put in motion.”
A CPJ delegation visited the Philippines in June to investigate the reasons behind the killings, traveling to the capital, Manila, and provinces in Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. The delegation consisted of Abi Wright, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator; Roby Alampay, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance; and A. Linn Neumann, executive editor of the Hong Kong-based daily The Standard. In a subsequent special report, “On the Radio, Under the Gun,” CPJ’s Wright found that a deeply entrenched culture of impunity, rampant corruption, gun violence, and a rising overall crime rate conspired to create deadly conditions for the press. Government officials have been linked to half of the journalist murder cases, and police officers are frequently named as suspected gunmen.
Journalists also told CPJ that professional reforms were needed to raise ethical standards. Block-timing, in which radio commentators lease airtime and solicit their own commercial sponsors, drew particular concern. Critics said block-timers are more likely to abuse their power and engage in questionable practices. One such practice is called “AC/DC journalism: Attack, collect. Defend, collect.” These broadcasters attack and defend reputations based on who is paying them off.
CPJ found that 17 of the 22 journalists murdered in the Philippines over the last five years were radio broadcasters. At least seven were block-timers, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a local press freedom organization.
Another outspoken block-timer was gunned down in July on Mindanao. Rolando “Dodong” Morales was ambushed and shot at least 15 times by a gang of assailants on motorcycles while he was on his way home from work. Police cited his anti-drug commentaries as a possible motive in the attack. In August, police in General Santos City arrested and filed murder charges against two suspects in Morales’ murder, including the alleged mastermind.
The government claimed that it had solved half of the journalist murders committed since 1986, but CPJ and others found the claim to be misleading. The government defines a case as “solved” at the mere identification of a suspect. While more criminal cases were filed against suspects since Task Force Newsmen was formed, convictions in these cases remained extremely rare.
The 2005 murder cases showed law enforcement acting more quickly than in the past, but the record is far from complete. The murder charges brought against the purported masterminds in the Garcia-Esperat murder were dropped in September because of conflicting evidence. Although the gunman in the Agustin murder alleged that the local mayor had hired him, no legal action was immediately taken against the politician. Suspects have been arrested in the Cantoneros and Morales cases, but they have yet to go to trial.
Journalists were encouraged by a guilty verdict in one closely watched murder trial. Former police officer Guillermo Wapile was convicted on November 29 of gunning down Edgar Damalerio, an award-winning editor and radio commentator, in Pagadian City in 2002. Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, had successfully lobbied to move the trial to Cebu City—away from local violence and corruption—in hopes of getting a fair proceeding.
Two witnesses to the Damalerio murder were slain while the case was pending. In February, unidentified gunmen killed witness Edgar Amoro as he left the high school where he taught. The other, Jury Lavitano, was murdered in 2002. The sole remaining witness, Edgar Ongue, testified despite threats to his life.
Judge Ramon Codilla sentenced Wapile to life imprisonment. A courtroom filled with the journalist’s family, friends, and supporters erupted in applause as the judge’s verdict was read aloud. Damalerio’s widow told CPJ she was “very happy” with the verdict, and she thanked press groups for their efforts to secure justice for her husband.
Press freedom advocates were hopeful that the verdict would sustain the momentum in the campaign for safer and more just conditions. Yet considerable challenges remain. Three more journalists were gunned down in less than two weeks in late 2005. CPJ is investigating to determine whether the slayings were connected to the victims’ work.