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The killing of journalists and the culture of violence and impunity in the Philippines

Statement of the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility on the continuing killing of journalists, September 9, 2013

Mostly unremarked in these times of corruption and other scandals is the continuing killing of journalists. Eighteen have been killed for their work in the three years of the Aquino III administration, or an average of six per year. Five of the most recent killings took place in the last three months.

The record of the Aquino III administration as far as the killings are concerned still falls below that of the Arroyo regime, which totals 80 killings over a nine-year period, or an average of nine killed per year. But the number of slain journalists in this administration has surpassed those of the administrations of Fidel Ramos (11 killed over six years, or an average of two per year), and of Joseph Estrada (six over three years, or an average of two per year).

And yet the Aquino administration has three more years to go. There is a danger that by 2016, the continuing violence against journalists will not abate and may show up a huge failing on the part of President Aquino, the failure to do something about these attacks against the press. It is linked to the larger culture of impunity, when wrongdoing of all kinds goes unpunished.

The undeniable escalation of the number of killings is disturbing enough. But just as troubling is the increase and variety of harassments to which journalists have been subjected.

Since 2012, death threats and physical attacks as well as attempts on the lives of journalists have visibly risen. The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) has documented 62 such incidents of intimidation in 2013 alone.

Some practitioners have been accused of using the press for purposes other than that of providing their audiences the information and interpretation on matters of public interest citizens need. Press abuse of the freedom protected by the Constitution and unprofessional and unethical conduct do occur, and have not escaped the attention of the press community and media advocacy groups such as CMFR, that among other related efforts, regularly conduct seminars and conferences on upholding and defending ethical and professional values. Violence is hardly the commensurate response to journalistic and media lapses; criticism and exposure as well as bringing them to the attention of the mechanisms of media and press self- regulation, are.

Indeed the latter has been the response of those who have such legitimate complaints against the media as bias, inaccuracy and lack of fairness—and who, in seeking to correct these, bring them to the attention of editors, journalism and media practitioners, and such self-regulatory bodies as the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP). Criticism, discussion and debate as means of arriving at corrective measures are after all the legitimate means of redress in a democracy.

But democracy is hardly the concern of those who mastermind and carry out the killings, physical attacks and death threats as a first response against journalists. They are not interested in correcting press and media errors, but in silencing criticism. These are the individuals and groups involved in the corruption and criminality that most of those killed—90 percent of them, as a 2006 CMFR study found - were exposing through their news reports, columns and analyses.

CMFR has long argued that attacks on individual journalists are also acts of violence against the entire press as a pillar of democracy, and that the continuing killings damage the capacity of the press to help create the enlightened public crucial to a democratic society. The violence against journalists is as much an expression of the culture of violence as the extra-judicial killings that have claimed the lives of lawyers and judges, local officials, political activists, nuns and priests, and those other sectors and individuals engaged in exposing corruption, defending human rights, and protecting the environment, among other advocacies.

The culture of impunity that fosters the culture of violence is deeply destructive of our development, of our country and of our people. But it also inflicts damage on the Aquino administration because it erodes the hopes raised by its rise to power. Various media groups networked as the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, Inc., including the CMFR, the KBP, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Press Institute, and the Center for Community Journalism and Development, had started a dialogue with Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and a team of communication officials during its first year, obtaining their commitment to take concrete steps to address this issue.

These necessary steps include, among others, constituting a quick response team of government officials, journalists and media NGOs to investigate and report each case as it happens - a multi-sectoral approach that would go a long way to dramatize the political will to stop the killings. Other measures call for efforts to cause the review of the Rules of Court which have enabled interminable delays in the resolution of the cases against the accused killers of journalists; the strengthening the Witness Protection Program; and improving the forensic and investigative capacity of the police.

No society can survive for long if its citizens, including journalists, are in their daily lives perennially under siege from the forces of violence. The administration has to address this problem - it has to prioritize it as one of its most vital tasks - as its gains in the struggle to address both violence and impunity will result in the greater safety and security, not only of journalists, but of all citizens.

Citizens themselves, as they are demonstrating in the current campaign against corruption, must bear in mind that the perpetration of corruption results from the same culture of impunity which allows the guilty to go free. The advocacies against corruption and against violence against journalists are thus joined in the common struggle to end impunity?

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