Impunity led to massacre of reporters


On 23 November 2009 - a date to be remembered by journalists all over the world - 32 media professionals and their traveling companions were murdered by a local Filipino militia.  Some of the bodies were also mutilated. 

The media professionals were traveling together with 25 other civilians on their way to register a candidate for the May 2010 election for governor of Maguindanao, a province at the southern end of the Philippines archipelago, when they were overtaken by the militia and killed.

This horrible mass murder of journalists was not an isolated event. Rather it was the fruit of a deeply rooted culture of impunity that has grown stronger year by year. Philippine journalists fear more blood will be shed in the upcoming general and local elections in May.

Journalism is a genuinely dangerous profession in the Philippines. At least 136 journalists have been killed there just since 1986.

The Maguindanao massacre garnered some headlines and prompted a handful of demonstrations around the world.  Still, the tragedy has not caused any significant outcry among civil leaders in societies around the world. Why?

Some answers can be found in the prevailing understanding of the Philippines, a country with a long tradition of lacking real justice. 

A culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish in the society. Since the overthrow of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, some 104 journalists had been killed, prior to the attack on 23 November 2009. Of these, at least 68 have been killed during the nine-year long administration of president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Yet, there have only been four successful prosecutions in just two cases. 

A culture of impunity

A key government figure, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita simply told the reporters that the central government “does not have full control of the situation on the ground, mortals as we are.” However, one needs to ask if the government actually wants to control various warlords and local militia groups, some of which the government might have armed in the past.

Since president Arroyo came to power in 2001, “some 1,100 men, women and even children have been summarily killed (the exquisitely ironic Philippine term for it is “salvaged”), 204 forcibly disappeared, another 1,000 tortured, and nearly 2,000 illegally arrested. Scores of others have been the victims of various forms of human rights violations by the police, the military, state-sponsored military groups, the private security guards of plantations and haciendas, and –oh yes – the warlord armies that infest this archipelago of tears, says Luis V. Teodoro, the editor of Philippine Journalism Review Reports.

He points out that the Ampatuans has become the most affluent clan in the second poorest province in the Philippines because the regime needed them during the 2004 and 2007 elections, and will continue to need them in future ones.

It also needs them to keep the Moro separatists at bay and to see to it that the poverty they preside over doesn’t morph into further rebellion, says Teodoro.

Only political rivalry?

The massacre last November was an atrocity that arose from a vicious political rivalry between two powerful clans in Maguindanao: the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus. The central political support provided to the ruling Ampatuans clan, particularly by the Arroyo administration, has allowed the clans to amass large private armies and arsenals. The Ampatuans are alleged to have rigged the local vote in both the 2004 and 2007 elections in favor of Arroyo. (In both elections more votes were cast than the numbers of registered voters.)

The Arroyo government has actively promoted the development of paramilitary units, which have evolved into militias under the command and control of the local clan leaders or warlords. The units are used by government to fight as counter-insurgents and to maintain law and order, particularly in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Many of the clan leaders and warlords (and their extended families) hold positions of office, such as governor and mayor, allowing them to further strengthen their power base and deliver considerable political, social and economic influence over the areas they control.

The army or militia of a local warlord may have many police functions in a local society, a situation the government tolerates because it can save on expenses. As long as the forces also protect government politicians and their supporters, everything appears to be fine. Problems arise when favored war lords use their position to attack, harass - if not massacre - rival clans. In Maguindanao the government has chosen to apply the rule of law, which at best implies years of lawsuits and long-delayed justice, or no justice at all.  

Esmael Mangudadatu’s candidacy for provincial governor was the backdrop for the killings. Having been warned of a possible ambush, Mangudadatu did not travel with the group but instead sent female family members and supporters, and invited the press to go along, in the belief that women and independent witnesses would not be attacked.

The International Federation of Journalists report on the killings summarizes the event:

“The convoy departed from Ismael Mangudadatu’s home in Buluan just after 9am and proceeded on the national highway. After 10 am, as it neared Ampatuan Town, the convoy was stopped at a checkpoint roadblock at at Sitio Malating, Barangay Salman, by about 100 armed men, allegedly led by the son of the Ampatuan clan patriarch. The convoy was then diverted west on a side road for about 2,5 km’s to a hilly and sparsely-populated area where pits had been dug by a back-hoe.

Over the next four hours, 57 people who were in the convoy as well as passersby were murdered and their bodies, with some of their vehicles, were buried in the pits. General Cayton, alerted by journalists who had turned back from the convoy before the roadblocks, ordered his troops to search the area. Soldiers arrived at the site before the gunmen could complete the disposal of the bodies and vehicles, and found almost two dozen bodies – all had been shot."

Of the 32 (some say 34) journalists killed in the massacre, the body of photographer Fernando “Bebot” Momay from the Midland Review in Tacurong City, has not been found.

Almost all local journalists

A review of the list of Filipino journalists who died in the line of duty since 1986 reveals that almost all were from community papers or radio stations. The fact-finding report compiled by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, and MindaNews makes it clear that most of the victims were reporters and photographers for Mindanao-based newspapers, although some were employed by radio and television outlets.

“Nearly an entire generation” of local journalists was wiped out, said the report, which noted that most of the victims were married and had children. For those journalists who remain, fear is a constant.

The culture of impunity was the topic for a round-table discussion sponsored by UNESCO in September 2009, only two months prior to the tragic murders in Maguindanao.  Jose Pavia, publisher of the award-winning local newspaper Mabuhay and the Executive Director of the Philippine Press Institute, noted during the discussion that the press has become part of the problem.

Journalists must go back to the basics of accuracy and excellence. Their role of reporting is necessarily investigative. The “citizen journalist” cannot replace good journalism, which checks and double checks the facts and which disregards them when in doubt. While news is “history in a hurry,” citizen journalism has become merely “news in a hurry” without the guarantee of accuracy. Journalism can only have one advocacy, and that is the advocacy for truth, says Jose Pavia.

Key questions without answers

During a few days together in February 2010, key Filipino journalists and editors discussed many of the core issues facing journalists in the country. Several questions remain after the deeply tragic events in November 2009 and demand action from government, civil society and the media organizations.

Here are just a few of the questions:

(1) Why were only local journalists without much experience covering the event that was scheduled to take place? Was the possibility of something ‘bad’ happening leaked to key media well in advance, making them refrain from commissioning the serious journalists to cover the story?

(2)  How much of this tragic story relates to finances? Many local journalists are “block-timers” (or freelancers) who do not earn regular, decent salaries.

Covering a story like the one in question attracts more "freelance" journalists who want to be around and get financial benefit to support their own family.

(3) Media accreditation is another key issue in the Philippines. People sometimes falsely claim to be part-time journalists. They file a few reports, and thus find a way to earn money for a living by opening themselves up to bribes from politicians and others.

"It is a real issue for Philippine media to ‘clean up’ among themselves, instituting a much tougher set of criteria to become an accredited media professional . . . and also combat widespread corruption and bribery among people affiliated with the media."

Many questions are still to be answered by Major General Alfredo Cayton who was the senior military representative in the province and later has been promoted to vice commander of the Philippine army. The journalists (none of them from Maguindanao) sought a military escort from the 6th Infantry Division, but was assured by the commander, Major General Clayton, that the road to Sharrif Aguak was safe.

Who is next?

Earlier in February the three-month-long election race for the next President of the Philippines officially began, and next month brings the campaigns for elected regional and local government officials. The money will flow and media will be full of the latest news, opinions and accusations from one candidate to the other.

In the election campaign in 2001, three journalists were killed, and in 2007 at least two were murdered.

Amid all the posturing and noise of the campaigns, the biggest question for this election season is: How many journalists will be killed this year?