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Journalist fears for her life after exposing local corruption

(CMFR/IFEX) - A reporter based in Batangas, south of Manila, has been living in fear for more than three weeks after articles she wrote exposing provincial government corruption angered the local governor, Armando Sanchez.

On 8 July 2005, Mei Magsino-Lubis, a correspondent for the "Philippine Daily Inquirer", received a phone call from a police source advising her to get out of Batangas, as two prisoners from the provincial jail had been "released" with orders to kill her. According to the source, it was the prison warden, Lutgardo Natanauan, the governor's brother-in-law, who allowed their escape. The journalist was also informed that the governor had paid certain policemen to "get her dead or alive."

Since then, Magsino-Lubis has been in hiding, fearing that she may be added to the list of murdered journalists in the Philippines.

Several days after the warning phone call, the journalist said a car was noticed staking out her home. She suspects the men inside were watching her on Sanchez's orders.

Magsino-Lubis believes Sanchez is after her because of articles she wrote alleging irregularities in his projects, including a 5 July piece published by the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" on the provincial government's 350 million pesos (approx. US$6.3 million) computerisation project. Other exposés alleged the governor led the illegal gambling operations in Batangas and that he ordered the 30 May killing of provincial ombudsman Guillermo Gamo. Gamo had been investigating Sanchez-initiated projects at the time of his death.

Magsino-Lubis is the only journalist in Batangas who has written about these alleged irregularities.

On 4 July, Sanchez invited the journalist to a function in the capital. Taking the opportunity to get his side of the story, Magsino-Lubis asked the governor about his involvement in the computerisation project. He denied any wrong-doing, shouting curses at her and claiming he was being maligned by the "Philippine Daily Inquirer".

After the incident, Magsino-Lubis's friend told her that Sanchez was quoted in a press conference as saying, "I want to twist Lubis' neck!"

On 5 July, Sanchez filed an oral defamation claim against the journalist at Batangas City Regional Trial Court, accusing her of being disrespectful to him during the 4 July interview. The journalist denied the allegations, claiming it was the governor who had verbally attacked and cursed her.

"Sanchez was already shouting at me, despite my low voice telling him to please don't say those words to me. I expected to be treated like an invited guest, and not treated as harshly as that," the journalist said.

The case was immediately brought to court before any investigation could be conducted or Magsino-Lubis could file a counter affidavit.

The journalist told CMFR that the case was intended to harass her and to prevent her from writing stories about the governor's suspect projects.

Batangas' 15 municipal mayors have signed a persona non grata declaration against Magsino-Lubis, whose acts they said were "unbecoming of a journalist." Each of those who signed the declaration reportedly received projects worth one million pesos (approx. US$17,850).

On 12 July, Magsino-Lubis was arrested. She posted bail the next day.

An arraignment in the case has been set for 15 August.

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