Attacks on the Press in 2005: Introduction

By Ann Cooper

On May 2, when the Committee to Protect Journalists identified the Philippines as the world’s most murderous country for journalists, the reaction was swift. “Exaggerated,” huffed presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye, who was practiced at dismissing the mounting evidence. He had called an earlier CPJ analysis of the dangers to Philippine journalists “grossly misplaced and misleading.”

Two days after CPJ’s May report was issued, another journalist died from gunshot wounds in the Philippines. Klein Cantoneros, a 32-year-old radio broadcaster known for denouncing corruption on his program “People, Wake Up,” was murdered in a fashion sadly familiar to CPJ researchers: Gunmen on motorcycles shot him as he returned home from work in Dipolog City.

This time, the message out of the presidential office was dramatically different. The murder of journalists in the Philippines–Cantoneros was the 20th to die since 2000–had reached the level of “collective national shame,” acknowledged a senior administration official, Mass Media Secretary Cerge Remonde. Newspaper editorials, one published in red ink, denounced the government’s chronic failure to ensure journalist safety. Politicians and police scrambled to respond. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assured the country that “the whole criminal justice system has been alerted and put in motion.”

Action should be expected in murder cases. But when journalists are killed because of their work, whether in the Philippines or elsewhere, justice is the exception, not the rule. According to CPJ research spanning more than a decade, less than 15 percent of journalist murders are ever solved. In its May report, “Marked for Death,” CPJ called this failure of justice the most urgent threat facing journalists worldwide and described it as a terrible deterrent to the free flow of information.

“Marked for Death” identified the world’s five most murderous countries as the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh, and Russia, based on the number of killings from 2000 through early 2005. By year’s end, Iraq had displaced the Philippines at the top of that list. Nearly half of the journalists killed in Iraq since the conflict began in March 2003 were murdered by insurgent groups who targeted editors, writers, and photojournalists to silence them or to punish them for working with Western news organizations. It may be some time before violence in Iraq yields to the rule of law.

But in other countries there were promising signs that those who kill journalists could be called to account. Political change in Ukraine brought progress in solving the notorious beheading of online journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000. President Viktor Yushchenko, swept into office in late 2004 by the peaceful Orange Revolution, made an early pledge to solve the Gongadze case. A year later, prosecutors had arrested three of four suspects, and a parliamentary commission had accused former President Leonid Kuchma and his allies of plotting the crime.

In Brazil, seven members of a criminal gang were convicted in the 2002 murder of television reporter Tim Lopes. While working on an investigative story about the sexual exploitation of minors in Rio de Janeiro, Lopes was tortured and then brutally killed with a sword. The slaying galvanized the Brazilian press and drew international attention.

Putting a spotlight on murder makes a difference. In Mexico, where drug-fueled violence endangers the press, CPJ lobbied vigorously for federal intervention in the cases of several murdered journalists. The investigations had stalled in the hands of state and local authorities, who are prone to corruption and have few resources. President Vicente Fox visited CPJ’s New York offices in September and pledged federal support in the prosecution of crimes against free expression.

In countries where political will was lacking, CPJ took other approaches.

This fall, CPJ turned to the United Nations Security Council to intervene in violence against journalists in Lebanon. Newspaper columnist Gebran Tueni was slain in one car bombing and colleague Samir Qassir was killed in another. (Qassir’s murder sparked the mass demonstration in Beirut featured on the cover of this edition of Attacks on the Press.) The killings were seen as retaliation for politically sensitive coverage.

In October, CPJ highlighted the information vacuum in Colombia created by years of violence against journalists. CPJ’s report, “Untold Stories,” detailed the many sensitive subjects the Colombian press no longer covers for fear of reprisal. In startlingly frank interviews, journalists described how Colombia’s warring factions and criminal gangs had forced them into routine self-censorship, depriving the public of reporting on such vital issues as human rights abuses and drug trafficking.

In Russia, where the government had done little to investigate 12 contract-style murders of journalists since 2000, CPJ gathered the victims’ relatives and colleagues at a Moscow conference in July. The meeting ended with a joint appeal for the government to vigorously pursue all 12 cases and a vow by participants to speak out for justice. At year’s end, Russian prosecutors were set to open the trial of three suspects in the murder of Paul Klebnikov, an American journalist of Russian descent who was gunned down outside his office in Moscow in 2004. And the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear charges that Russian authorities had failed to properly investigate and prosecute a much older case, the 1994 murder of Moscow reporter Dmitry Kholodov.

But the most heartening sign came in the Philippines, where the government had long shirked responsibility for investigating brutal attacks against journalists in remote regions. After the May 4 murder of Cantoneros and the killing of yet another journalist less than a week later, Arroyo said the attacks were “frightening and must be stopped.” She set up a Press Freedom Fund to provide rewards for information on murder cases, as well as assistance to the families of slain journalists.

Manila’s new political will began to yield results. More vigorous investigations led to arrests in several cases–something nearly unheard of in the years of violence against Philippine journalists. In November, the conviction of a former police officer in the 2002 murder of journalist Edgar Damalerio was hailed as a landmark that could help eradicate murder as a weapon against the Philippine press.

For years, the Damalerio case had symbolized everything that had gone wrong in the Philippine justice system. Damalerio, a respected newspaper editor and radio commentator, was shot while driving home from a press conference in Pagadian City. Although eyewitnesses identified the killer as police officer Guillermo Wapile, local authorities allowed him to slip away for more than two years. Two witnesses were slain before the case reached court, and it appeared that justice would be brushed aside as easily as it had been in so many other Philippine cases. Little wonder that Edgar Ongue, the sole remaining witness, told CPJ that he felt “like a flame in the dark.”

But something different happened this time. Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, petitioned to move the trial out of corrupt Pagadian City, and the Supreme Court granted the venue-change request. Damalerio and Ongue, whose lives had been threatened repeatedly, were placed in a federal witness-protection program. Persistent pressure from local and international press groups had helped to create a climate that compelled Philippine authorities to act.

Ongue testified, and Wapile did not get away with murder. A judge convicted the ex-officer and sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first such conviction since the record-setting wave of journalist murders in the Philippines began in 2000. It’s just a start, but it’s a reminder of the value of individual courage and international attention. Ask Edgar Ongue, who wanted “to show that it’s not right just to kill anyone and then get away with it.”

Ann Cooper is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She led CPJ’s Moscow conference on journalist murders.