Sea Change

by Juan L. Mercado

“Every journalist killed or neutralized by terror is an observer less of the human condition. Every attack distorts reality by creating a climate of fear and self-censorship” 

That sums up Tuesday night’s strafing of Inquirer columnist Randy David’s home, on University of the Philippines’ campus. Meticulous research and unblemished integrity characterize David’“Public Lives” column. It appears in a broadsheet with the most extensive reach.

In contrast, majority of journalists cut down earlier were in remote places like Ampatuan town. Some were radio  “blocktimers” with hazy credentials, a Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility study found in 2005. This pattern held — until Tuesday’s strafing. Is a “sea change” occurring in Murder Inc.?

Every journalist killed or neutralized by terror is an observer less of the human condition,” is also lead sentence in a draft UN “plan of action on safety of journalists and the issue of impunity”.

This draft takes center stage May 3. That’s when 193 UNESCO members link up, in a cyberspace conference, to mark World Press Freedom Day.  Wednesday, the  Philippines can display bullets fired into David’s home. But can we present the gunmen in handcuffs?        

WFPD’s roots go back to the 1991 “Declaration of Windhoek”.  Harrassed African journalists published a restatement of free press principles.  This prodded the UN General Assembly to designate 3 May as WPFD. Countries on this day gauge press freedom against yardsticks set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Compliance varies from cynical lip service by North Korea, Syria and China to emerging reforms in Burma, notes Reporters Without Borders in it’s 2012 report’.

“China has more journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents in prison than any other country. It stepped up censorship and propaganda in 2011 and tightened its control of Internet, particularly the blogsphere.”

Burma ranked 169 in 178 countries studied. Yangon implemented partial amnesties and eased censorship. Less than 10 journalists are still  detained in a country of junta officials “reinvented as civilian politicians.”

Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada led countries that respect liberty of expression. Two African countries – Cape Verde and Namibia – earlier joined the top 20 where “no attempts to obstruct media were reported.

The Philippines?  We’re in slot 140,  wedged between Gambia and Uganda. Believe it or not, that’s an improvement.  In  2009, we nose-dived due to the massacre of 32 journalists in Maguindanao. 

Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York published it’s 2012 survey. A dysfunctional justice system pegs us, third among the four nations, that fail to nail journalist murderers, CPJ states. Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka are our fellow “black sheep”.

Since 1997, UNESCO confers the Guillermo Cano Award on WPFD. The prize recalls Columbian editor Guillermo Cano Isaza who denounced drug barons. He was assassinated, at El Espectador news  offices, in Bogotá.

Azjerbaijani editor Eynulla Fatallayer, 35, will receive the Cano Award Wednesday. He was jailed for struggling to win press freedom, and has been pardoned in time for the rites.

The first Filipino journalist slain in 1961 was Antonio Abad Tormis of Cebu.  Editor of the defunct Republic News, Tormis exposed corruption in the city treasurer’s office. Both gunman and treasurer were convicted.

Today, “in nine out of ten cases, perpetrators of these crimes are never prosecuted.”,  body counts by groups like Commiittee to Protect Journalists, to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange show. “Impunity…perpetuates the cycle of violence against journalists.”

”On the international level, the  “deadliest” countries this year were Syria, 6 victims,; Somalia 4, and one each for Brazil, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bahrain, Nigeria, India and Thailand. Syrian shelling in Holms killed Marie Colvin, Sunday Times and Remi Ochlik of France.  Of these victims, 47% were murdered. And impunity was total!

Since 1992, 72 Filipino journalists were slain in the course of their work, a CPJ headcount asserts. Majority covered  political beats. Nine out of 10 were murdered.  Only 9%  got partial justice. Impunity resulted in 91% going scot free.

“Is it necessary that journalism be a widow-maker craft?” The Ampatuan town massacre was seven years away. That was  already one of the world’s worst records,”  International Press Institute said at that time.

Inept law enforcers, linked to the underworld, and zero convictions, spawned a pernicious “culture of impunity.” President Glorial Arroyo benefited politically by toleration of 132 private armies of local warlords, Economist noted.

Freedom of expression is an individual right, for which no one should be killed, the WPFD draft says. Impunity results in a climate of intimidation and violence leads to self censorship. The draft proposes action – at local to international levels – for action.

When all is said and done, what matters is firm action by Filipinos. Can we really say: Nothing prepared us for Maguindanao?, Viewpoint asked (PDI/Jan. 2010).. Did we fail to connect the dots yesterday?  And did that lapse result in today’s widows of slain journalists — and Tuesday’s strafing of Columnist Randy David’s home in UP?

“Journalism is humanized only through stark confrontation with reality,“ Colombian editor and 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote.  “Never has this profession  be more dangerous”.


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