The State of Press Freedom 2015

The State of Press Freedom 2015:
More journalists killed and threatened, many more laid off. And still no FOI…

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has always said that we do not see any pattern that would lead us to conclude that the continued murder of journalists in the country is part of any official government program, unlike, as many experts have noted, the extrajudicial killings of activists and other dissenters.

We have been very clear about this since we began documenting media killings in our country.

However, recent events may make us reconsider this view.

We have had military officers, angered that their lies about the atrocities against the lumad were being exposed, mounting a brazen, if amateurish, smear campaign against our former chairperson, Inday Espina-Varona, baselessly accusing her of being in cahoots with communist rebels. While laughable, we all know the deadly implications such Red-tagging can have for its targets.

And then we have the Magahat militia, the “monster” created by the military as Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel so aptly described them, threatening to ambush journalists covering the 47th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines because doing so supposedly equates to being rebel sympathizers.

Worse, the man who issued the threat, Bobby Tejero, has been charged in court and has been ordered arrested by the courts for the murders of a tribal school administrator and two Manobo leaders and yet, going by the accounts of Surigao del Sur officials and residents, continues to sow terror in the province and – Surprise! – continue to operate with the military.

That Tejero has failed to carry out his threat does not diminish the fact that this wanted murderer can openly issue such threats without any fear of being hauled to court because he apparently enjoys the protection of those whose task is to bring him before the bar of justice.

Then, the day after Christmas, an ABS-CBN news team, led by the chairman of our Iligan chapter, was tailed and fired on by motorcycle-riding gunmen in broad daylight in the heart of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur. Thankfully, none of them was hurt.

While the Marawi ambush may, on the surface, have nothing to do with the military and Magahat threats, as we have said time and again, government inaction on – or more aptly, apathy towards – the murders of journalists and President Benigno Aquino III’s well-documented penchant for blaming media for most everything wrong with his administration can only serve to embolden those who wish to silence us. Indeed, a broad daylight attack on a clearly marked news vehicle in the heart of a major city is as bold as it gets.

And of course, we do not expect government to admit any link to these openly announced threats from the military and the Magahat, just as the military insists it has nothing to do with the Magahat and other militias wreaking havoc among lumad communities or, for that matter to the unabated murders of activists and farmers and religious and the countless others whose blood soaks our benighted land. But its silence in the face of this brazen flouting of our laws and democratic processes damns it as surely as if it had given its blessings.

As he winds down his term, Aquino has been big lately on legacy. Yes, we will indeed long remember his presidency as one of the bloodiest for Philippine journalism and for its attempts to undermine freedom of the press and of free expression.

To date, of the 170 media killings since 1986, 30 happened during the Aquino Administration. This year alone, we lost six colleagues, namely, Maurito Lim (Bohol); Melinda “Mei” Magsino (Batangas); Gregorio Ybanez (Davao del Norte); Teodoro Escanilla (Sorsogon); Cosme Maestrado (Misamis Oriental) and Jose Bernardo (Quezon City).

Let us not forget the single deadliest attack on press freedom in the world when 58 innocent people, including 32 journalists and media workers were massacred in Ampatuan, Maguindanao in November 23, 2009 whose resolution is light years away – with a principal accused out on bail and on the verge of being elected mayor to boot – no thanks to the government’s broken promises of a speedier judgement.

All these and more are grim reminders of the culture of impunity that reigns in the Philippines, where masterminds in the killings of journalists and other civilians go unpunished, suspects go scot-free or run for office, and murderers issue open threats to members of the 4th Estate.

The Philippines may have been dropped from international media group’s lists of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world but this does not diminish the fact and reality that journalists in this country are indeed experiencing increased threats from state and non-state actors.

Not helping in any bit here are the media owners, who have imposed record high mass layoffs and job cuts this year, that have endangered local journalists and media workers and affected communities nationwide that are already suffering from an FOI-less future, no thanks to the failed promises of a leader and his legislative minions to pass it for the last six years.

It is thus with trepidation that we welcome the new year, especially as the election season heats up.

We then urge all Filipino journalists to remain vigilant against threats and attacks while doing their jobs…

Even as we also challenge journalists to unite and defend press freedom at all cost.

The NUJP National Directorate