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Largest massacre of journalists ever takes place prior to elections

Shallow graves are being unearthed after a horrific massacre of journalists in the Philippines this week; the deadliest attack ever on the press.
Shallow graves are being unearthed after a horrific massacre of journalists in the Philippines this week; the deadliest attack ever on the press.

Aaron Favila via AP

At least 21 journalists were killed in a massacre of more than 52 people after being abducted by armed men in the Philippines this week, reports the Manila-based Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). This is the largest group of journalists killed in a single incident in the world. Many of the victims were beheaded and mutilated; some of the women were raped.

The journalists were part of a convoy of relatives and supporters on their way to file candidacy papers for gubernatorial candidate and local mayor Ismael Mangudadatu in the province of Maguindanao, on Mindanao island, report IFEX members. The group included Mangudadatu's wife, Genalyn, and other relatives.

About 100 gunmen seized the convoy in the morning and slaughtered the group in order to prevent them from reaching the electoral bureau, report IFEX members. Their bodies were found at different sites later in the day. News reports say at least 13 of the dead were women. The massacre will likely trigger reprisal and extra-judicial killings, says CMFR, increasing the level of violence in Maguindanao and throughout the Philippines

News reports say attacks on candidates and supporters during campaign periods are common throughout the Philippines, with close to 100 killed in 2007 local elections. But election violence is more extreme in Maguindanao, which is predominantly Muslim, with its Islamic insurgency and history of clan wars.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), several local politicians and warlords are believed to operate armed militias of their own, and fighting between factions is common in Maguindanao. The gunmen were alleged to be relatives and political allies of the Ampatuan clan, currently in control of the area, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). Mangudadatu intended to challenge local political leader Datu Andal Ampatuan for the provincial governor's office, report IFEX members. Cycles of revenge between the Mangudadatus and the Ampatuans are linked to a culture of impunity fostered by national leaders, comments CMFR.

The gunmen included two policemen connected to the province's governor, a supporter of President Gloria Arroyo, alleges Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Arroyo has declared a state of emergency in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City, reports CMFR. This declaration will provide legal cover for the police and military, known for being impartial to different factions, to prevent the media from covering political rivalries, exacerbating the culture of impunity that is behind the current tragedy.

The massacre has had an instant chilling effect on the media, reports ARTICLE 19. Some journalists have refused to travel to the area to report on the incident, fearing further violence. "Free and fair elections cannot take place when the right to free expression is seriously threatened. This includes the right of everyone to express their political viewpoints and of journalists to report on political activities without intimidation."

The 23 November killings have increased the number of Filipino journalists slain in the line of duty this year from 3 to 24, according to IFEX members.

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