The phrase “spiral of violence” is from the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) statement commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists and the 10th anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists. It is a description of what journalists all over the planet are being subjected to, at times even in their own homes and in the presence of their families.
The Nov. 2 statement expressed alarm over the fact that as of 2021, impunity — the killers of journalists’ escaping prosecution and punishment — was at 86% world-wide. That means that only in three cases out of every 20 journalists killed were the perpetrators punished.
UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay thus called on “stakeholders and governments” across the globe to “redouble their efforts to end impunity for crimes against journalists.”
Some 117 journalists were killed in several countries in 2020-2021 — at least six of them in the Philippines — of which 91 were killed at home or elsewhere rather than at work. Only 11 out of the 117 cases, as per UNESCO findings, have so far been resolved. That leaves 106 in the limbo of uncertainty.
“Freedom of expression,” Azoulay continued, “cannot be protected when there is such a staggering number of unresolved cases. It has a chilling effect on investigative reporting, a field of journalism which is vital to the health of any democracy.”
Not just investigative reporting, but every field of journalism is crucial to the survival and enhancement of democratic life and governance.
Whether it is in the form of an explanatory or opinion piece or the daily news reporting that provides citizens the day’s intelligence on such matters as what government is doing, the prices of prime commodities, and even the weather, journalism matters. It is quite simply because accurate and relevant information enables the citizenry to make decisions on such issues as vital as who to vote for, or what government policies to support or oppose — or for that matter, whether or not to bring an umbrella to school or to work.
More than providing such practical guides to daily living, journalism has the power to help make the difference between a society in which oppression, poverty, and stagnation are the lot of the majority, or one in which development as well as political and individual freedoms thrive.
It is precisely to silence them and to limit journalism’s latter potential that journalists and media workers are being harassed, intimidated, imprisoned and killed from Russia to Haiti to Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and the Philippines. In far too many instances, the deed is planned and implemented by those privileged and powerful interests with huge stakes in keeping things the way they are and their minions.
The toll in the Philippines has placed it almost at the tail-end of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. One hundred and seventy-seven (177) journalists and media workers have been killed for their work as media practitioners and workers in the Philippines since 1986, ironically when, with the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship, democratic rights and institutions were restored. Ninety percent of that number were exposing and campaigning against local corruption, government misdeeds, criminal syndicates, and the illegal drug trade among other, mostly community but also national issues.
Of those 177 cases, only 19 (or 51 is the 32 killed in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre are included) have been resolved with the conviction of the killers. But only in three cases — in the killing of Henson Hinolan in 2004, Marlene Esperat in 2005, and Gerry Ortega in 2011 — were the masterminds tried. In almost every instance, police, military and other security personnel were either the killers themselves or the accomplices and abettors of the masterminds. The killings have been continuing, with three journalists killed this year, the latest being Percy Lapid (Percival Mabasa).
The “chilling effect” of the violence against journalists on every field of journalism in the Philippines is evident in the way some media organizations have made it a point to quote and cite government sources almost exclusively— a practice that has been widely criticized for decades by media watch groups and free expression and human rights defenders.
There is as well a significant decline in investigative reporting as UNESCO points out, compared to the period in the aftermath of the 1986 People Power uprising. Enterprise journalism, except in rare instances, has also declined, with many reporters merely quoting what this or that source said without context or analysis.
In addition to a rigorous reexamination of the conventions of media as these have been interpreted in practice, what can help end this distressing state of Philippine journalism is a stop to, or the reduction in, the number of journalists murdered through a clear demonstration that both the killers and the masterminds will be identified, found, prosecuted, and punished.
That is what makes the credible resolution of the Oct. 3, 2022 killing of broadcaster and online journalist Percy Lapid imperative. The good news is that there is every indication in the government’s response that things are heading in that direction.
But the understandably skeptical may be wondering why, in contrast to the behavior of past administrations — that of Rodrigo Duterte’s, for example, did nothing about the killing of journalists except to create the Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFoMS) for show — the Marcos administration has seemingly been doing everything it can to resolve the killing of Lapid and to bring the killers and masterminds to justice. And it is doing so to the extent of exposing how government agencies like the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor) and the National Bilibid Prison (NBP) have themselves been involved in contracting convicts in their custody to kill on behalf of still unidentified but high-ranking officials.
This is not happening solely because Lapid was one of the few journalists killed in the National Capital Region (NCR). At least two had also been killed in NCR in this century, but did not invite the same government response. It could then be for some political or equally self-aggrandizing purpose. Could the “persons of interest” involved be minions of Marcos family rivals or partisans of future competitors for, say, the Presidency in 2028?
No one can be blamed for thinking that it is not the regime’s dedication to the ends of justice that is driving it to every day provide the media and the citizenry proof that it is pursuing the case to its required conclusion, and that it will in fact do so. Whatever its motives may be, however, what is indisputable is that bringing the killer(s) and mastermind(s) to justice and putting an end to impunity could stop or at least reduce the number of journalist killings in this “most murderous place to practice journalism” as the Paris-based press freedom watch group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) once described it.
If the “spiral of violence” against journalists does end, or is at least minimized, the dividends would be to free expression, press freedom, and, quite possibly, the return of the enterprise and investigative journalism that this country needs to help it move forward. It would also contribute to the resumption of the democratization process that the killings and harassments of the past five decades have been undermining. The cynical may not agree. But that is how important an enterprising, ethical, and free press can be to the human need of taking control of their own communities, lives, and destinies. n
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).