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Monday, January 25, 2021
MANILA, Dec 15 2008 (IPS) - Three years after Marlene Esperat was shot dead in her living room, she continues to symbolise the plight of journalists in the Philippines who are increasingly being victimised or murdered in a country which prides itself on having a free press.
The Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) reported this month that 62 journalists have been murdered since 2001 – the year that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became President. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has declared the Philippines as among the world’s most dangerous countries for the press.
“The numbers (of murdered journalists) this year represent an escalation that at the very least indicates the unchanged readiness on the part of those who cannot tolerate critical reporting and comment to silence journalists to the detriment not only of press freedom but of the democratic dialogue in Philippine society,’’ the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) said in a press statement, last week.
In November, Aresio Padrigao of dxRS Radyo Natin (Our Radio) was killed by an assassin riding pillion on a motorcycle. On Dec. 2, Leo Mila of Radyo Natin in San Roque was on his way out of the radio station compound when he was attacked by unknown assailants to become the eighth journalist murdered this year.
“It’s a continuing story. This is an attack against us journalists. It’s an attack against press freedom. We need to think collectively to be able to resist pressure and intimidation of the Philippine media,” Melinda Quintos De Jesus, CMFR executive director, said at a press conference, last week.
CMFR is one of the founding members of the FFFJ which was formed to address the killing of journalists.
The fact that most of the culprits go unpunished is widely seen to be seriously threatening press freedom. According to the CMFR, only two out of the 37 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 2001 have resulted in convictions. Barring Esperat’s case, no alleged mastermind has been prosecuted.
Esperat became a journalist by accident. While working in the department of agriculture, she uncovered anomalies by key officials and soon turned into a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster in her hometown in Sultan Kudarat, southern Philippines.
Esperat, who relentlessly exposed alleged corrupt activities in the Central Mindanao office of the department of agriculture, may have continued her work except that in March 2005 she was killed by unknown assailants in full view of her children.
Media groups rallied to help Esperat’s family seek justice and filed a case against the suspected masterminds – local agriculture officials Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay. In October, after years of litigation, the regional trial court issued a warrant of arrest against the two.
It is difficult for journalists to rely on the government for protection. Lawyer Harry Roque notes that, with the police and public prosecutors complaining that they are overworked and underpaid, journalists need to take a lead role in protecting themselves. “In the end, it’s the victims who need to be responsible for what will happen to them,” Roque said.
Prima Jesusa Quinsayas, FFFJ’s legal adviser, said journalists were still being harassed and murdered for exposing wrongdoings in the government.
“Press freedom has four elements: right to information, access to information, right to dissemination and freedom from subsequent punishment after the expose was published. All four must exist to guarantee that there’s indeed press freedom,” Quinsayas said in an interview.
Quinsayas said press freedom in the Philippines was threatened in several ways. For one, the burden of proof in libel cases filed in the Philippines rests on the accused. This means that in an allegedly libelous story, the judicial court assumes that there is malice involved and the burden of proof rests on the journalist who was sued.
There is also the stranglehold of powerful political dynasties to reckon with, especially in the provinces where journalists who publish exposes stand to be intimidated, assaulted or even killed.
De Jesus said that it is not only journalists who should be concerned over the killings but the general populace as well. “Why should we all care? Because we are a democracy. We all need to be involved in protecting our democracy,” she said.
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