Report: Philippines is ranked as the third most deadly country for journalists after Iraq and Syria
77 journalists were killed in the Philippines since 1992, all but two were victims of targeted hits
Journalists in the southern regions have been targeted for their critical reporting of powerful politicians
To mark World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO has released explosive new data that reveals that one journalist is killed every week on average around the world.
Unsurprisingly, war-torn countries in the Middle East top the list of the most deadly countries for journalists.
But after Syria and Iraq, an archipelago in southeast Asia is the most dangerous place to report from.
Since 1992, 77 reporters been killed as a result of their work in the Philippines, compared to 80 in Syria and 166 in Iraq. Of those, all but two were the victims of targeted hits, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“Philippines isn’t a war zone. But the body count rivals that some of the most dangerous countries, for reason of internal conflict,” Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told CNN.
In 2009, gunmen killed 32 journalists in Maguindanao province in the semi autonomous Muslim region, Mindanao, along with 25 other civilians.
Now known as the “Maguindanao massacre,” it is up until today the single deadliest event for journalists anywhere in the world.
Local media reports suggest it was politically motivated, as several casualties were related to a gubernatorial candidate who was going to run against the province’s then incumbent governor and warlord, Andal Ampatuan.
The journalists were accompanying the candidate’s wife and sisters who were on their way to file candidate nomination papers.
“Journalist investigations touch on the interests of powerful individuals who are backed with armed forces, and journalists can suffer for their investigations,” said Kine.
Local journalist David Santos grew up and started his career in Mindanao, where he knew colleagues in the journalism community were targeted for delivering hard-hitting criticism.
“I particularly recall a local radio commentator who was shot dead inside the radio station … he would really go to the extreme, and openly criticize politicians, or gang lords in the communities for their illegal activities,” said Santos, a correspondent for CNN Philippines.
“We were really afraid for our safety and many journalists had to be very cautious with their reporting for a time.”
Santos too had his fair share of learning to be cautious in a hostile working environment. For over a decade, he covered the insurgencies and separatist movements that have long troubled the southern parts of the country.
Several provinces in the region are home to a sizable Muslim population. Religious and cultural differences have spurred revolts between rebel and government forces, killing thousands of people, many who are innocent. Over several decades, the drawn-out conflict has since displaced nearly four million people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Santos spoke of the rare opportunities when he and a group of journalists would be invited into the lairs of key rebel armed forces.
“I was afraid, but at the same time curious who these people were,” said Santos.
Security within rebel camps was tightly controlled and it was impossible to navigate inside the mountainous terrain without a trusted guide. Cross a wrong line, and you might accidentally trespass into an opposing faction’s territory, said Santos.
“We were surrounded by these heavily armed young people. At times, they would fire their guns recklessly, aimlessly as if they were having fun. They would laugh,” recalled Santos.
“All of us journalists would panic.”
But there’s more to the death toll than a bullseye on journalists’ backs and treacherous conditions.
Culture of impunity
The CPJ report states that there are no convictions in almost 90% of the murder cases, and that the culture of impunity remains the greatest threat to press freedom in the Philippines.
In a country where the legal system is inefficient and confusing, court cases pile up and the process of justice is painfully slow.
Since President Benigno Aquino took office in 2010, 26 journalists have been killed and suspects have been arrested in only six of those cases, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The Department of Justice could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with the CPJ, they said the culture of impunity is an issue the Aquino administration is tackling.
“I cannot deny the fact that there is still that perception or belief that there is the culture of impunity. But that is something that this administration is trying to end – the culture of impunity,” said Leila de Lima, secretary of the Department of Justice.
Efforts to end this pervasive culture include setting up a legal “superbody” aimed at expediting the investigation and prosecution of the widely reported extrajudicial killings, which are not limited to journalists.
At times when the government does make progress in securing convictions for these killings, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the masterminds still remain at large.
In one case, a suspect confessed to shooting radio broadcaster Gerardo Ortega in the back of the head in 2011. However, implications surrounding the conviction pinpoints local politicians as the ones responsible for orchestrating the murder.
“Since that tragic incident, the accused masterminds … have remained in hiding and the wheels of justice continue to grind painstakingly slow,” Rupert Francis Mangilit, secretary general of the union wrote in a statement.
Despite the attack on press freedom and the dangers Filipino journalists face, journalists like Santos believe that such incidents have only strengthened their resolve in standing up against injustice and impunity.
“It’s somehow bolstered our confidence. Different unions and federations have been set up to ensure press freedom and to support the families of the victims,” said Santos.
Kine also gives praise to the Filipino journalists who have risen to the occasion despite all odds.
“It’s inevitable that some stories and some issues are going to go unreported due to this fear and threat level that journalists can face.”
“But one thing that is quite inspiring is that Filipino journalists have this journalistic DNA that goes against the odds and is willing to take often quite serious risks in order to get the story out,” said Kine.