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SEAPA MISSION CONFIRMS PERVASIVE CULTURE OF IMPUNITY

On 24 March 2005, Marlene Garcia-Esperat, a whistleblower-turned-journalist who exposed corruption in the government's Department of Agriculture, was gunned down in her home in full view of her children in Tacurong City, in southern Philippines. Her case was once heralded by IFEX members as the first time since 1986 that the people ultimately responsible for the murder of a journalist were identified. Now it has become symbolic of the struggle against impunity: the masterminds have continued to elude justice.

Four years to the day that Esperat was killed, media advocates from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) converged in Manila on a mission to challenge President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration about the killing of journalists.

According to the mission, impunity for the killers of journalists has reached an alarming level in the Philippines, and the current administration is doing little about it.

An average of five journalists has been killed in the line of duty in the Philippines since 2001 when the Arroyo administration came to power, says the mission.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), IFEX's member in the Philippines and also a member of SEAPA, says in its 2008 annual report that six journalists were killed for their work last year alone. Aside from killings and physical attacks, the Philippine press also faced legal suits and other harassment from government officials and powerful personalities.

And despite extra efforts by civil society and media groups to convince the authorities that unsolved murders are a problem, they continue unabated, especially in rural areas, and the mission says they are setting a destructive trend in the region.

The SEAPA mission noted an increase in the violence against journalists and media workers in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, including killings, harassment, and mob attacks on individual journalists; raids of media premises; and legal sanctions being used to silence the media and suppress online free expression in 2008.

According to the mission, "the culture of impunity that is deeply-rooted in the Philippines could be replicated in other countries in the region unless there is a common effort to dismantle it in the Philippines."

The mission welcomed a new government initiative, the creation of tracker teams within the Philippine National Police's Task Force Usig to lead to the arrest of suspected killers and masterminds in cases of murdered journalists. But, it stressed that "only a demonstration of the efficacy of the justice system in resolving crimes like the killing of Esperat can help put an end to the killing of journalists."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which released its annual Impunity Index in Manila to mark the fourth anniversary of Esperat's murder, recommended that the government take "hard steps to gain convictions: assigning sufficient prosecutors and investigators to these cases, moving trials to safe and impartial venues, protecting witnesses, and providing high-level political backing for all of these efforts." The Philippines was ranked the sixth worst in the world in CPJ's index of countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.

Political killings are not confined to journalists. According to leading human rights group Karapatan ( http://www.karapatan.org ), nearly 1,000 extrajudicial killings have been counted since Arroyo came to power.

The mission hopes the 2010 presidential election will drive Arroyo to stop the killings of journalists and political dissenters as well as the impunity that accompanies them, which could be "one of the enduring legacies (she) can leave the Filipino people as (her) term ends."

Comprised of media advocates from the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia, the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, the Thai Journalists Association, the Center for Independent Journalism in Malaysia and SEAPA, the mission travelled to the Philippines on 21-24 March 2009.

Visit these links:
- SEAPA mission, "Southeast Asian media advocates challenge Philippine President Gloria Arroyo on killing of journalists": http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/101844
- CPJ has focused particularly on unsolved killings in the Philippines in its Global Campaign Against Impunity: http://www.cpj.org/campaigns/impunity/
- CPJ's Impunity Index: http://tinyurl.com/cfpgjf
- CMFR, "Philippine Press Freedom Report 2008": http://tinyurl.com/ddqh2q
- Also check out CMFR's interactive map on the killing of journalists, which plots the 130+ killings of journalists since 1986, by administration, gender, region, medium and motive: http://www.cmfr-phil.org/map/index_inline.html
(Photo of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, courtesy of her family)

(1 April 2009)

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