Killings of Filipino journalists unabated, says dean of Columbia University journalism school
• More than 120 Filipino journalists have been murdered since 1992
• Three killings happened just three months ago
• Most masterminds elude justice because they are politically powerful
BROOKLYN, New York — The body count is growing, said Sheila Coronel, dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
More than 120 Filipino journalists have been killed since 1992. Most of them were killed because they exposed election fraud, human rights abuse, and corruption in their towns and cities.
Eighty-eight percent of these deaths were carried out with complete impunity. This means that no one — not the killer or the mastermind — has been charged for the crime.
Since Pres. Benigno Aquino III took office in 2010, there have been 27 journalists killed in the country. Three of these killings happened just three months ago.
These deplorable numbers were part of the message that Sheila Coronel delivered on March 24 to a crowd of Filipino Americans at a Brooklyn restaurant, to increase awareness of the dangers that Filipino journalists face.
“Most of our conception of journalists being killed is because they were caught in the crossfire — that’s not true,” she said. “These journalists are specifically targeted because they were writing mainly about low-level crimes and corruption in the areas in which they worked.”
The discussion — which was organized by friends and supporters of Filipino-American journalist, Randy Gener, who was brutally assaulted three months ago in New York City — came in time to memorialize Marlene Garcia-Esperat, an anti-graft columnist for the Midland Review who was gunned down exactly nine years ago.
A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that, on March 24, 2005, a gunman walked into Esperat’s house in Tacurong City, in southern Mindanao, and shot her in front of her family.
“It turned out that the gunman and his two lookouts were paid about 100,000 pesos to kill her,” said Coronel, who was a friend of the victim.
While four of those involved in the Garcia-Esperat killing are now in jail, which Coronel noted as one of the few cases with a resolution, the court dismissed the murder charges against the accused masterminds: two officials from the Mindanao Department of Agriculture.
“In many of these killings, the masterminds often manage to elude the arrest,” Coronel said. “This encourages more and more violence against Filipino journalists.”
According to the France-based Reporters Without Borders, the Philippines and Pakistan are among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In the “2014 World Press Freedom Index,” the Philippines ranked 149th among 180 countries.
‘Killers are powerful elites’
One of the reasons that killers of Filipino journalists have impunity, according to Coronel, is that they are “powerful elites” and therefore it is “very seldom that murderers are brought to court.”
The political influence the masterminds of the killings have, she says, could also sway the decision of the courts and deliberately bungle up police investigations.
“This isn’t new: the courts are slow and sometimes they’re corrupt,” she said. “And the police just don’t do its work.”
Coronel, who is also the co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), noted that nothing could illustrate the impunity in the Philippines than the Maguindanao massacre, where 57 people — including 31 journalists — were slaughtered in a grassy clearing.
Although almost 200 people are facing murder charges and more than 400 witnesses were brought to the court, Coronel said that the case has remained at a standstill.
“This was four years ago,” she said. “There were witnesses, but up to now the case is still rotting in court.”
Since then, Coronel says that another six people have been killed: three were witnesses to the crime and another three were relatives of the victims. “They did this to intimidate them and force them to withdraw their case.”
On Nov. 23, 2009, according to reports, while 57 men and women were on their way to a political event, driving on a convoy through the rugged hills of Maguindanao, a group of armed men stopped them. Then, they were dragged out of their vehicles, lined up on the side of the road, and executed.
“They [armed men] used backhoes, earth-moving equipment to bury their [victims] bodies and their vehicles, so that they would not be discovered,” Coronel said. “But, of course, they were discovered. Whoever thought that a crime like this could be covered up was crazy.”
The Maguindano massacre is the single deadliest attack on press that has been recorded in recent history.
Impact on the Philippines
As the death tolls of Filipino journalists continue to rise, the impact on the Philippines is in global scale.
“It’s very bad, internationally,” Coronel said. “The UN has just proclaimed November 2nd as the International Day of Impunity in honor of the Maguindano massacre.”
CPJ has also written several Philippine government officials, she added, and has sent missions over there to monitor closely the court cases.
“But there’s only so much that you can do. It remains a battle that continues to be fought,” Coronel added. “Still, these cases are dragging on in courts — and no one knows whether, in the end, they [killers] will be convicted.”
Finding solutions and the Philippine paradox
Despite spate of attacks on journalists in the Philippines and around the world, Coronel believes that there is much to celebrate about today’s journalism.
The role of journalism in a democracy, she added, is now much more pronounced.
Coronel said: “We are freer than it used to be. It’s now possible to publish online at almost no cost. It is possible to reach a global audience even if you are just a single blogger and, by posting something on Facebook or Twitter, you can get the news out even in the most repressive regime.”
While the accessibility to the Internet and social media has allowed people to expose wrongdoings and to make sure people in power are held accountable for what they do, she says that it also heightens the vulnerability of journalists.
“This is the Philippine paradox: We’re free, but we’re also free to get killed,” Coronel said.
Over the years, she says, the whole gamut of investigations on the killings of Filipino journalists has already been done. Resolving these murder cases piling up in courts, however, is now the responsibility of the government.
“It’s now up to the courts to do their part, but we need constant vigilance, making sure that the courts are serious to do their work that is free from political pressure.
“It’s really important that the killers, particularly in the Maguindanao massacre, are brought to justice. This would discourage more murders of journalists in the Philippines,” Coronel said.