Philippines: On the Radio, Under the Gun

Behind the Rising Death Toll of Radio Broadcasters in the Phillipines

KALIBO, Philippines
In a dark, cramped studio in this small provincial town about 200 miles south of Manila, Herson “Bombo Boy” Hinolan used to start his top-rated show on DYIN Bombo Radyo with a bang. Literally.

Hinolan blasted corrupt officials and illegal gambling, naming names and punctuating his fiery commentary with deafening bangs on a bass drum propped in the corner. His “shock jock” style drove up the station’s ratings even as it put his life at risk. One night last November, a gunman shot Hinolan repeatedly in the back, making him one of eight Philippine journalists murdered for their work in 2004.

Broadcasting from remote areas where the power of radio is strong and the rule of law weak, boisterous commentators such as Hinolan are being gunned down in record numbers, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. Of 22 journalists murdered in connection with their work in the Philippines since 2000, 17 were radio commentators from rural provinces who were shot and killed for what they said on the air. In May, CPJ named the Philippines the most murderous country in the world for journalists over the past five years.

To date, there has not been a single court conviction in any of the killings.

The violence against broadcasters highlights the larger crisis of crime and corruption in this nation of 7,000 islands and 82 million people. 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. In one notorious case, two witnesses were assassinated before an ex-cop went to trial for gunning down a broadcaster.

A culture of guns and lawlessness fuels the violence. More than a half million illegal firearms are in circulation, according to police estimates, at a time when violent crime has been rising at alarming, double-digit rates.

In interviews with journalists around the country, many also pointed to problems within the media community itself. They complained about an absence of professional standards and ethics among some broadcast journalists, particularly “block-timers” who lease airtime from station owners. An ineffective broadcast regulator with toothless enforcement powers, they said, contributes to a climate in which violence is the primary means of accountability.

Binolan got his start in 1988 as a field reporter for Bombo Radyo, one of the most popular and most emulated radio networks in the Philippines today. Bombo Radyo’s name sums up its philosophy: In the local Tagalog language, bombo means to bang, as on a drum. Bombo Radyo stations have a reputation for being “hard hitting,” both on the drums that all of the stations feature, and in the broadcasters’ bold commentaries. “Bombo started this trend, and then everybody tried to emulate them because they got high ratings,” said Carlos Conde, Secretary General of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP).

Hinolan became station manager of Kalibo’s DYIN Bombo Radyo in the central Aklan province and launched his morning show, “Bombohanay Bigtime,” in 1999. The show made a lot of noise and was a big hit, his former colleagues say. Lilia dela Cruz, who now runs the station, said that Hinolan was so popular because he dared to take on powerful people such as the mayor of nearby Lezo, Fred Arcenio. “He would challenge people and say ‘Let’s go. I challenge you to a duel!’ and then bang on the drum,” dela Cruz said. Local journalists described the mayor as a gun-toting former military man.

Last year, Hinolan accused Arcenio of ethical violations involving cockfighting and gambling. Dela Cruz said that the mayor, prodded by such commentary, would call Hinolan during his morning show, and the two would argue on the air. Over several months, tensions increased. Colleagues told CPJ that Hinolan knew he was taking risks by speaking out against gambling—in particular, the popular numbers racket called jeuteng—and corruption. He had previously been threatened, and took the precautions of hiring bodyguards and carrying a weapon.

But on the night of November 13, 2004, there were no bodyguards to stop the gunman who pumped seven bullets into Hinolan’s back and arms while he was using the bathroom at a convenience store. He died in a local hospital two days later. In a police statement, an eyewitness identified Arcenio as the gunman. Arcenio was arrested for Hinolan’s murder, but the charges were downgraded from murder to a lesser homicide count because an Aklan prosecutor found insufficient evidence of premeditation, The Visayan Daily Star reported. The mayor posted bail on the reduced count and filed a motion seeking a reconsideration of the case against him, according to dela Cruz. A trial cannot begin until the motion is resolved. Arcenio continues to hold office.

“The provinces are very corrupt, and radio is very powerful. It is never neutral; all radio journalists have an angle,” according to Conrado de Quiros, a respected columnist with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Local officials in remote provinces can wield tremendous power, even ordering murders. “These killings cannot be done without the authorities’ consent,” de Quiros said. Col. Frederick Oconer, deputy director of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Task Force Newsmen—the investigative unit dedicated to solving journalists’ murders—confirmed that belief. “Suspects are at times government employees,” he said. “And most of these victims are hard-hitting broadcasters with the radio.”

Since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo launched the national task force in June 2004, the unit has pursued media murder cases aggressively and has identified suspects. Task Force Newsmen’s official statistics claim that the unit has filed reports with prosecutors identifying suspects in more than half of journalist murders since 1986. “To us, we say a case is solved when we have identified a suspect and filed a case in court,” Oconer said.

Yet many of these suspects remain at large, and those who mastermind the killings still regularly elude authorities. Oconer described another obstacle—finding witnesses brave enough to testify in court. “With witnesses, it is very hard to convince them (to testify) for fear of their lives. Most of the time, they know who the masterminds are,” Oconer said. Chief State Prosecutor Jovecito Zuño said his office has formed a special panel to prosecute these crimes, but it has similar difficulties bringing suspects to justice. “There are no witnesses. That’s why we can’t prosecute,” he said.

Witnesses have good reason to be afraid. Just ask Edgar Ongue, the only survivor among three witnesses in the May 2002 murder of award-winning radio broadcaster and editor Edgar Damalerio in Pagadian City on the southern island of Mindanao. Edgar Amoro—who identified former police officer Guillermo Wapile as Damalerio’s killer—was gunned down outside a local high school in February 2005, despite being in a witness protection program. Jury Lovitaño, a second potential witness in the case, was killed in an ambush in August 2002.

Ongue himself survived an attempt on his life last year when his assailant’s gun malfunctioned. He said he also turned down a 500,000 peso (US$10,000) bribe not to testify.

Now, as the murder trial of Wapile proceeds in the central city of Cebu, Ongue is under around-the-clock armed guard. Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, and her 3-year-old son are also in the witness protection program. Meeting them for a recent interview required passing through two rooms guarded by armed men into a windowless back room where Ongue and Damalerio and her son sat with three more armed guards.

Over Cokes in the hot back room, Ongue explained that he is determined to testify on behalf of Damalerio because the commentator had helped him several years before. After insurgents attempted to levy a “revolutionary tax” on Ongue’s farm, Damalerio spoke out against the practice on local radio DXKP—and the insurgents stopped harassing Ongue and other farmers.

Roland Simbulan, a professor of development studies at the University of the Philippines in Manila, said Ongue’s positive experience with radio is common. “Radio is a way for people to articulate their problems. In local areas, warlords are entrenched. Anyone who challenges them, activist or media practitioner, is killed.”

As the Damalerio murder trial nears a conclusion this summer, Ongue said that he wants to set an example, “to show that it’s not right just to kill anyone and then get away with it.” He said that he feels “like a flame in the dark.”

Gemma Damalerio, whose family has been threatened 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.

Because Damalerio was a respected journalist known for exposing corruption, his case received national attention and raised the profiles of other journalist murder cases, columnist de Quiros said. “In 2002, Damalerio’s case caught the attention of Manila. Prior to that, nobody cared, although he was not the first.” Families of other murdered journalists have followed the case closely as well. Like Gemma Damalerio, some are now appealing to the Supreme Court to move the locations of their trials out of their hometowns where vested interests can corrupt the legal process. The family of Roger Mariano is among those seeking a venue change.

Mariano, a radio block-timer, was brutally killed in July 2004 on his way home from a station in San Nicolas in the northern province of Ilocos Norte. Police reports show that even after his assailants gunned him down, they kept shooting, hitting him several times in the head. Mariano leased airtime from station DZJC and was responsible for bringing in advertising money on his own, a controversial practice. Of the 17 broadcasters murdered since 2000, at least seven were block-timers, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a press freedom organization.

Critics of block-timing say that since the commentators are unregulated and have to solicit sponsors to support themselves, they are more likely to abuse their power and engage in questionable practices.

One such practice is called “AC/DC.” Jose Torres of the NUJP explained: “AC/DC journalism: Attack, collect. Defend, collect.” Such broadcasters tailor their commentary, attacking and defending reputations, based on who is paying them at a given time.

Block-timers often have no background in journalism. Klein Cantoneros, a block-timer from Mindanao who was gunned down in May of this year, had previously worked in politics and public relations. He had failed his broadcast licensing exam, CMFR data shows, but he was still able to go on the air.

Although he was working as a block-timer at the time of his murder, Mariano had a long history in broadcast, working 12 years as a commentator with the Bombo Radyo network before moving to local station DZJC two years ago. His show “Roger Mariano—In Action,” aired daily in prime time and featured crusading reporting and vivid commentary. His show was popular and listeners called in with tips, his niece, Lauren Gail Polintang, told CPJ.

The night Mariano was killed, he announced on the air that he had documents showing fraud and corruption at a local electric company. Two gunmen shot him 16 times while he was on the way home. The shooting happened in front of a house, but its owner, the main witness to the shooting, refuses to testify because he fears for his life, Mariano’s family said. Other witnesses have also been threatened, they said.

The suspect, Apolonio Medrano, a senior police officer, was arrested and charged in November 2004, but he filed a motion to quash the case in January 2005, stalling proceedings for months. Mariano’s family said that the case is highly political, and they worry that Medrano’s powerful friends will obstruct justice. “We are afraid that there are really big people behind this, and that our lawyer won’t stand up to them,” Polintang said.

Polintang said state prosecutors advised her family to retain private counsel to protect its interests. The family’s first lawyer quit after being beaten last year. It’s now found another lawyer, but he will only take the case if the trial is moved to Manila. Polintang said she is convinced that justice depends on persuading the Supreme Court to move the trial.

Every one of the 17 radio broadcasters slain over the last five years was killed with a gun.

Authorities point to the proliferation of illegal weapons to explain soaring rates of violent crime. The Philippine National Police estimates that there are more than 320,000 unlicensed firearms and another 200,000 guns with expired registrations, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Crime rose by 10 percent during 2004, the PNP reported. In the first quarter of 2005 alone, “heinous crimes” such as murder, rape, and theft jumped another 10 percent, the PNP said. “There is a sheer inability to enforce the law,” said de Quiros, the columnist.

“Murder has become mainstream,” said Stella Estremera, editor of the Sun Star of Davao. “Life has become so cheap. It is so easy to have someone killed.”

The presence of guns in the Philippines is impossible to ignore. Ubiquitous signs in airports, government offices, and even amusement parks request that people check their firearms before entering. Landing at the airport in Davao, the largest city in Mindanao, passengers were greeted recently by a poster of a local government official aiming a gun. The official, Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Durenza, was launching a new shooting range.

Part of the scheduled opening day activities: a training session for the press itself, teaching journalists how to shoot in self-defense.

Government officials now recommend that journalists arm themselves. The national police chief, Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., loosened gun license restrictions in August 2004 so journalists under threat could more easily carry firearms. Local press groups condemned the idea, saying that it deflected responsibility for the protection of the press. Some journalists have armed themselves, although carrying a gun is no assurance of protection. Cantoneros was armed when he was gunned down in the town of Dipolog in Mindanao in May. He fired back at his attackers, to no avail.

Some public officials carry weapons, too. Rodrigo Duterte, the powerful mayor of Davao, had a.38-caliber pistol in his waistband when he was interviewed by Time magazine in 2002. In the interview, Duterte denied that he personally ordering any killings, but said of militants who had been summarily executed in the 1990s, “I taught them a lesson.” This year alone, there have been 116 reported extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and militants in the city of 1.5 million, the MindaNews news service reported in June.

One of Duterte’s most vocal critics, radio commentator and block-timer Jun Pala, was ambushed and shot nine times in 2003. It was the third time that unidentified gunmen had tried to murder Pala, who used to open his top-rated radio show with the greeting: “This is Jun Porras Pala, who remains the voice of democracy in the Duterte reign of terror.” In 2002, Pala accused the mayor of ordering a failed 2001 hit on him. On the day he was murdered, Pala criticized the mayor on his show and dared him to order his men to come and get him, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Responding to questions in the aftermath of Pala’s murder, Duterte announced that he would be “happy to submit to an investigation” into the killing. He would not answer other questions about the case, saying “no comment” and “ask the police,” according to MindaNews. He has not been charged.

Journalists in Davao said that the widespread availability of weapons in Mindanao had contributed to a rise in the number of murdered journalists. Mindanao has one of the highest concentrations of murdered journalists in the country, with seven killed there in the last five years. They noted that Pala was a controversial figure; the military used him to promote anti-communist agitation in the 1980s. According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Pala was known as a “mouth for hire.” Despite his past, and his questionable practices, local journalists were outraged by his murder and said it was a direct attack on press freedom.

“Jun Pala was the only one who dared to take on the mayor, and for that people respected him. He admitted that he was corrupt, but people loved him because he had guts. People were not surprised when Pala was killed, but there was no police report, no court case, and no investigation,” the NUJP’s Conde said. The case remains unsolved, according to Task Force Newsmen documents.

Print and television journalists from Davao lamented that they did not have any role models when Ferdinand Marcos’ reign came to an end two decades ago and journalism opportunities opened up again (See related story, “Amid troubles, a rich press tradition.” ) They also complained about a lack of professional standards, regulation, and training. One told a common joke: “That guy was sent to the store to buy vinegar and came back a reporter.”

Pala was beloved by listeners for his populist style; Jowell Canuday covered his funeral for MindaNews and said that thousands of people attended. But Pala was also disciplined by the Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines (Kapisanan ng Mga Broadkaster sa Pilipinas, or KBP), an independent regulatory body, at least twice for using obscene and incendiary language on the air, and his broadcasting license was “revoked.”

Yet that did not keep him off the air because the KBP is not empowered to enforce its disciplinary actions. It recommends fines, sanctions, and expulsions, but compliance by members and member stations is voluntary. According to its mission statement, KBP’s goals include the establishment of industry guidelines, but stations need not be members to broadcast. So Pala was able to go to another radio station in town after each disciplinary action and start his “hard-hitting” program anew.

Some journalists interviewed by CPJ criticized the KBP for not applying higher standards to those entering broadcasting, for not drafting enforceable rules, and for not reining in the controversial practice of block-timing.

“Many people are loudmouths. The amount of rage and bile on the air is dangerous,” Conde said. According to the CMFR data, as few as five of the 17 broadcasters murdered over the past five years had valid, up-to-date broadcast licenses.

Journalists said that it is difficult for those offended by provincial broadcasters to file complaints with the KBP. “Commentators are vulnerable because they are free to criticize anybody—and the people who are criticized don’t have access to the KBP,” said Nandy Vitalicio, news director of the Manila Broadcasting Company, the largest radio network in the Philippines. No radio broadcasters have been murdered in Manila, in part because the KBP is based there and has more influence in getting its voluntary rulings enforced, Vitalicio said.

Vitalicio sees solutions in reform—broadcasters bettering themselves and the system through better training, accountability, and standards. “We have been very free and responsibility has been lacking. We can do something ourselves.”

Rey Hulog, executive director of the KBP, said the organization is planning a conference with station owners to discuss reforms to the broadcasting system and ways to protect radio journalists by raising the bar for the licensing exam and setting standards for block-timers.

The KBP accredits the majority of stations—600 out of 695—and radio broadcasters at member stations have to pass an exam about basic practices to go on the air. But Hulog acknowledged the weakness of the voluntary system. “If you don’t want to follow the rules, you just don’t,” Hulog said. And among block-timers, he said, “the attitude is: ‘I bought this time, I can say what I want.’ “

Hulog also said that the KBP should be more accessible for those with complaints, and that its 46 local chapters should be better equipped to handle complaints. A complaint form is available online at the KBP’s Web site, but many listeners are not likely to know how to proceed.

“In this country, ordinary folks, as well as those in power, still have a very poor understanding and appreciation of the things they can do to respond to media criticism. (Even) writing letters to the editor is not very popular,” Conde said.

An estimated 86 percent of Filipinos get their news primarily from radio, according to the KBP, and many provincial listeners believe that outspoken commentators give voice to their concerns. “The level of trust in the government is low, police don’t work, and people are poor,” said Weng Carranza-Paraan, a NUJP member. “Radio makes people feel empowered.”

As influential radio commentators clash with powerful political forces, responsibility has been passed around.

The president’s husband, Mike Arroyo, caused an uproar when, in an address to journalists in the Visayan island province of Negros in May, he said that no journalists on Negros had been killed because “journalists here are responsible reporters.” Mike Arroyo is being investigated in the press and in the Senate for alleged connections to illegal gambling, but his attitude reflects a view held by many.

Prospero Pichay, a Mindanao congressman and former tabloid owner, puts responsibility on the broadcasters. “There are many factors to consider, sensitivities of Filipinos in the provinces. The other factor is responsible journalism. People have a radio station and they think they’re God. Coupled with the sensitivities, that sometimes triggers violence.”

But Congressman Teddy Boy Locsin, a press secretary to former president Corazon Aquino and newspaper publisher, took issue with those who would blame the victims. “Singling out newsmen is bad,” he said. “Once you allow one (journalist) to go, everyone is at risk.”

Conde said nothing excuses murder. “Despite everything, these things do not justify the violence.”

Secretary of Justice Raul Gonzalez said his department is dedicated to solving the murders of journalists. “Threats and killings constitute a threat to press freedom,” he said. “In the case of journalists, it is uncalled for because it is the media’s job to expose and to offer suggestions, but people may not have the patience to tolerate it.”

In this volatile landscape, journalists and others say some short-term changes are essential. They include: moving trial venues to neutral locations; 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. More than three years after her husband’s murder, Gemma Damalerio said she hopes a guilty verdict would begin to halt the killings of broadcasters and journalists. “Hitmen and police will be too afraid to kill again,” she said, weary but determined. “It will be a lesson to them that crime does not pay.”

Abi Wright is Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She led a 10-day CPJ mission to the Philippines in June.