The murder of investigative journalist Melinda Magsino in Batangas by two motorcycle-riding killers bloodily highlights yet again one great shame of the nation: the decimation of newspeople that is the third-worst in the world, 77 counted by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) since 1992. That’s behind only war zones Iraq and Syria.
Other governments stifle press and truth with draconian laws, armed repression, and lately Internet firewalls. But the Philippines, while taking pride in free media, has constantly failed to bring assailants and masterminds of journalist assassinations to justice. In certain ways, that is even worse than media controls.
The press finds ways of getting sensitive material past censors, and readers, listeners and viewers often read meanings between desensitized lines. Moreover, new media has opened the door for the unprintable and unbroadcastable to reach thousands or millions online, under pseudonyms, if necessary.
But a dead journalist is silenced forever. Her colleagues too are chilled into shutting up about the very enormities demanding exposure. And the impunity with which assassinations are done, with most perpetrators and instigators never prosecuted, punished or even identified, mocks the rule of law and further tightens the grip of the powerful over us.
In time, we stop caring about the killing, thinking we can do nil about it. What’s worse, we keep electing into positions of power the very hoods who set up the murdered journalists for liquidation.
If you’re about to turn to another page or website, that proves the point — and shows why media murders keep happening. We shrug our collective shoulders at the truth-muzzling carnage and make believe it never happened. (That, by the way, is what Malacañang wants us to do about Mamasapano, but that’s another story.)
The truth shall set you up
But this one, let’s not look away, but stare this undeclared war on truth, justice, democracy and accountability in the face, with the help of some chilling numbers.
As the charts from the CPJ website shows, three out of five journalists killed were covering politics, including two exposing corruption. Another quarter died on the crime beat. Two-thirds of suspected masterminds are government officials, with criminal groups (16 percent) and political entities (8 percent) also said to be behind killings.
Plainly, when journalists are assassinated, powerful interests are the most likely perpetrators. And that’s another reason for the impunity with which the murders are done. With their clout in the organs of power, plus armed muscle on the ground, politicians can influence police, prosecutors and justices, and intimidate witnesses.
No wonder nine out of ten media killings by CPJ’s data have yielded no arrests or jail terms, with only partial justice for the remainder. The Palace vows to get Magsino’s murderers — a common refrain whenever journalist blood flows. But President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s record of protecting allies may not augur well for justice, especially if the blood-stained hands can mobilize huge funds and voting blocs for the 2016 elections.
Also dampening hopes is the infuriatingly slow pace of court proceedings in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre case, in which 34 media people died — the largest number of journalists killed in a single incident ever.
Already, one scion of the suspect Ampatuan clan has been exonerated, while another principal accused, former provincial administrator Norie Unas, was made state witness in a weak electoral sabotage case against former president Gloria Arroyo. She declared martial law in Maguindanao to arrest and disarm the Ampatuan leaders and forces which allegedly killed 56 people in the election-related massacre.
Now if that unprecedented atrocity cannot obtain justice after nearly six years, one can only hope and pray that Magsino and others find it sooner.
Media must fight for justice
And more than that: the press must not depend solely on political leaders and the government to bring murderous suspects from their own ranks to justice. Rather, journalists must band together with other sectors and organizations here and abroad to demand, monitor and report efforts for justice in media killings.
One program of the Arroyo administration may be worth replicating: the Bantay Sakdal initiative. It brought together the Justice and Interior Departments, the police, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption citizens group, selected law schools and media outfits, plus the Judiciary as observer, to monitor and publicize significant cases. Bantay Sakdal kept trials moving, with undue delays given critical publicity.
The National Union of Journalists, the associations of print and broadcast media, and other press freedom advocates should under their own Bantay Sakdal monitoring, follow up and coverage of investigations and prosecutions of media killings. Constant coverage of such cases will ensure that they are not forgotten, and any anomalies in the criminal justice process are exposed and addressed.
The media’s unified search for justice should win support from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and other religious groups, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and other professional associations, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business bodies, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and other labor federations, not to mention VACC and other citizens advocacies.
And while we’re at it, unified media should also use our clout and reach to raise funds for the families of slain journalists, plus assistance and protection of witnesses, perhaps with the help of foreign entities. Even as the press fights for justice, it should already give assistance to the bereaved who are deprived of breadwinners.
In sum, media must join forces with the rest of society to bring justice and assistance to our slain colleagues, and make their killers pay. Otherwise, the killings will continue blinding the nation and preventing all of us from seeing the appalling evils committed by politicians, criminals, and other devils behind the murders.