Rene Ezpeleta Bartolo
Newsman Danilo Aguirre, 25 and father of two, had just bought a sachet of shampoo from a neighborhood “sari-sari” store when a gunman in a black ski-mask and motorcycle helmet shot him from behind with a .45 caliber pistol, Tuesday morning.
Danilo Aguirre would have been the 113th journalist killed in the Philippines in 20 years, had it not been for luck, or providence, that his companion, photographer Emmanuel Zaldivar, pushed the would-be assassin as the gun fired, and that the gun jammed when the gunman fired the second shot.
Almost a year ago, in November 2004, The Washington Post deplored the spate of killings of media members in the Philippines. The paper quoted Abi Wright of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Wright had reported: “A culture of impunity in the Philippines sets it apart from other places.”
In an article entitled “A culture of impunity protects journalists’ killers in the Philippines”, the Washington Post said: “When media members report about controversial issues, they can find themselves entangled in a web of overlapping political, business, and criminal interests with little protection from local police.”
“Not a single case involving the murder of journalists since 1986 has yielded a conviction,” The Washington Post reported. “Media advocates attribute this to the power of those who order the killings and their ability to hide hired killers in other parts of the country. This, in turn, explains the increasing frequency of these murders.”
“Labeling the Philippines as a dangerous place for journalists ‘a la Iraq’ is grossly misplaced and misleading,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in November 2004 in reaction to the Post article.
A couple of weeks later, on December 11, 2004, Davao photographer Gene Boyd Lumawag of the Mindanews wire service was shot dead as he was taking shots of the Jolo sunset, and Herson Hinolan was peppered with bullets inside the comfort room of a restaurant in Kalibo, Aklan.
Soon after the killing of Lumawag and Hinolan, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo set up a “kitty for the killers” and ordered Interior and Local Government Secretary Angelo Reyes to go after the killers of journalists. With the commitment of House Speaker Jose de Venecia, himself a former journalist, the kitty became a Php3.2-million fund.
The kitty has not prevented the killings.
On March 24, the eve of Easter of 2005, Marlene Garcia Esperat , columnist of the Midland Review published in Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao, was shot in the head and killed in her home in front of her 10-year-old daughter by two gunmen. Esperat had waged a crusade against government corruption and was known for her scathing commentaries.
Also this year, four other journalists – radio commentators Edgar Amoro of DXKP, (February 22); Rolando “Dodong” Morales, DXMD ( March 07); Klein Cantoneros, DXAA (April 05), and Starline Times Recorder reporter, Philip Agustin (May 10) – have been killed.
In Philippine media, the numbers are morbid and we are still counting.
Worldwide, a total of 168 journalists have been assassinated in four years between 2002 and 2005, according to the international press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders.
Fifty journalists have been killed in 2005; 53 in 2004; 40 in 2003; 25 in 2002 – a total of 168 in four years. As of today, according to the group, 4 media assistants have been killed; 107 journalists, 3 media assistants, and 70 cyber-dissidents are in prison.
The contribution of the Philippines to the worldwide statistics of violence against the free press is condemnable, to say the least. The government has not done anything to disprove the statement made by the Washington Post a year ago: “The Philippines is the second most dangerous country for a journalist, after Iraq.”
Should we throw the predicament of the Philippine press at the face of press secretary Ignacio Bunye today, we would get the same answer: “Labeling the Philippines as a dangerous place for journalists ‘a la Iraq’ is grossly misplaced and misleading.”
Meantime, we count the number of journalists killed. We are happy Danilo Aguirre, on an innocent morning with a sachet of shampoo in his hand, did not become part of the statistics that the government, exemplified by Bunye, chooses not to mind.
John Paul Jubelag, editor of Mindanao Bulletin, a weekly newspaper based in General Santos City, said he could not understand why anyone would want to kill Aguirre, an uncontroversial columnist of the paper for just over two months who wrote business stories and features on personalities.
“He has no known enemy,” Jubelag added, although he admitted that he and other writers of the paper had been receiving death threats.
Jubelag said his newspaper had been reporting on corruption in the judiciary and exposing alleged abuses by judges for over a month. Jubelag believes the shooting of Aguirre was work-related and was meant “to harass and hurt us.”
Soon after the murder of Lumawag and Hinolan in December 2004, Inday Varona Espina, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) described the link between criminals, politicians, and law enforcers as an “incestuous relationship” extending to the highest levels of government.
These ties, explained Espina, cordon off the murderers of journalists from apprehension, prosecution and incarceration.
Most of the suspected killers of journalists, according to Espina, are government security forces including soldiers, policemen and paramilitary men, and private security forces under the pay of politicians, big business, crime syndicates, gambling and drug lords.
Most of the victims were killed following exposés of corruption and other abuses of local politicians, the military, and police or security forces. They reported on fund anomalies of local politicians, gambling, illegal logging, drug trade, and human rights abuses.
But most damaging to press freedom is the “onion-skin” reaction of the government, national and local, to criticisms by media. More than anything else, this has done much harm to press freedom in this country, touted to have the “freest press” in Asia.
The subalterns of government officials, hiding in the shadows, may interpret the tirades of their bosses against this or that member of the media as a license to kill. Unless, of course, the order to obliterate is direct, which is another matter altogether.
And then, people like Danilo Aguirre, father of two with sachet of shampoo in his hand, are shot in broad daylight. Before him, 112 have been shot and killed.
And we are still counting.