COMMENT: Media Killing and Impunity

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, December 6, 2014 – “Killing with impunity” has been plaguing the Philippines for decades. Human rightists have been blaming Government after Government for not stopping this. President after President, the plague would not go away; every incoming President would vow to eradicate the plague only to exit six year after leaving behind the problem as bad as, or even worse than, that during the time of his or her predecessors.

Killing with impunity is done by a mastermind and hired killer. In some cases, the hired killer if identified is killed by another hired killer to protect the mastermind. It is common knowledge that the rate of apprehension is very low; and so is conviction of the accused – low and slow.

Most vocal and critical of perceived government’s impotence to stop this crime are the media organizations and groups particularly concerning their slain members. During the present Aquino III administration 177 have been counted killed with impunity; more can be expected. Add this number to that during the past administrations to see the reality.

Considered internationally and nationally the worst media killing was the massacre of 32 print and broadcast journalists together with 26 others on a hill of Masalay, Ampatuan, Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. They were in the convoy led by the wife of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudatu who was to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy for governor in Sharif Aguak, the capital town of Maguindanao, lying a few kilometers next to Ampatuan.

The Burden

Apparently, the burden of stopping killing with impunity, particularly concerning media men, is on the government. At the international conference, Journalism Asia Forum, in Quezon City last November 23, coinciding with the the fifth anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre, the organizer, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, had “impunity” as the conference theme defined as “the failure to punish crime which engenders more crime”. It is an act with dire consequences.

CMFR specially defined “impunity”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer commented, as “befitting the unresolved Maguindanao massacre” and, obviously, expressing its belief regarding the killing of media men in general — that government is responsible for the continued perpetration of the crime. This perception is universal.

This definition is way off that in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary which is “freedom from punishment, harm or loss”. It is a state concerning human affair not an institutional or human act of omission with dire consequences. “Impunity” by Webster’s definition is a disposition anyone can assume; “freedom” also means “immunity”. He who acts with impunity thinks he is immune from punishment or harm. That of CMFR connotes “blame” and “responsibility”.

Applied to killing of journalists, the Webster’s definition is a shared thinking of the killer and the victim; the CMFR definition implies that the government is to be blamed for the perpetuation of media killing because of its failure to apprehend and punish the earlier killers. The burden of stopping the killing of journalists with impunity is solely that of the government.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who keynoted the JAF conference, said in her speech, as reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, that “combating impunity should be seen as a ‘shared burden’ of the Philippine courts and media and she emphasized the need ‘to work together, not against each other’.” (Italics bold ours)  

She delineated this shared burden: “By shining a light in the areas that a culture of impunity keeps dark, the media plays a crucial role in stopping impunity and ensuring accountability. On the other hand, the courts ensure that the media may shine a light, where and when needed, by protecting the crucial freedoms that ensure independence of the press. This is our common cause, our shared burden, our one hope.”

Simply put, this is the challenge for media to ponder on. Their part of the burden is to expose the sector of society prone to killing with impunity; the courts will protect their freedoms. Sereno’s proposition is really a poser: How will media’s exposé and the courts’ guarantee of media’s freedoms stop the killings with impunity?

Dual Impunity

“Impunity” dually abets the killing of media men – very rarely, women. Involved are corrupt leaders in high government offices, syndicates engage in illegal gambling, smuggling, drug trafficking, and some police and military officials. Flaunting their power, money and influence — acting independently or collaborating — they violate the law and rights of others with impunity believing they are immune from punishment.

This explains how corruption of public funds, smuggling, drug trafficking and other illegal and immoral activities proliferate in the Philippines with impunity. Through the years, impunity has been cultured to deform our culture; it has emboldened the few abusive rich and powerful with the vast majority resigning in silence and tolerance.

However, there are many who stand up, complain and criticize. They organize as “civic movements”; they take their cause to the press, now more popularly known as “media”. The media have their own crusade emboldened by the universally institutionalized freedom of the press and recognized power of the press. The civic movements and their cause become part of the media crusade.

The well-entrenched newspapers and radio-television networks do exposés in serialized reports and critical opinion articles without fear of retribution. They fight libel cases. Their regular reporters are not among the journalists killed with impunity.

Killing with impunity take their toll on reporters and staff of provincial newspapers and radio-television stations. Victims are print and broadcast journalists who undertake their own “crusades” in their opinion columns and programs with impunity believing that the power of media and freedom of the press make them immune from harm. But to the subjects of their “crusades”, they are just mosquitoes to be crushed with impunity.

If media “crusaders” believe they can criticize with impunity (immune from harm), those they anger with their exposés also believe they can kill with impunity (immune from punishment) — the latter’s impunity prevailing.

Media’s Burden

The media have long been doing their share of the burden that in reality, contrary to their belief, without impunity. They must rethink how to continue doing without losing any more of their members especially in the provinces. They must realize that they are really vulnerable, not immune from harm.

Their rethinking must consider (1) how to conduct their share of the burden; and, (2) the extent of their burden. By this, they will be drawing a code of conduct and guidelines for their members in addition to existing codes and guidelines.

Re- “(1)”: First, it must be observed that prior to the killing the media man had received a number of death threats – directly to him or through his family. The questions are: Why? What precautions were taken?

Second, often, the victim had been dubbed as “fighting” and “fearless”. This evokes the questions: How did he conduct his exposés and criticisms? Was he factual and tactful? Or, was he rash, arrogant and provocative?

Third, the media code and guidelines must instruct its members how – according to Chief Justice Sereno – to shine “a light in the areas that a culture of impunity keeps dark” as the media’s “crucial role in stopping impunity and ensuring accountability”. This means enlightening which calls on media to communicate objectively, factually, tactfully, soberly.

Re- “(2)”: The crucial role of media is to expose objectively and factually, not to judge and condemn – the role of the justice system. If Government does not pick up the exposé, the media should prod it, not initiate a trial by publicity. If the subject of the exposé gives its side to the media and this leads to the prolongation and ramification of the issues, this is not trial by publicity by the media but a consequence of the freedom of expression with the media as the venue of the forum.

Perhaps, by not overdoing their share of the burden and limiting themselves to the proper extent of their crucial role, the media will not expose their members to the killers with impunity and stop media killing.

Government’s Burden

To recall Sereno’s challenge, the crucial role of media in stopping killings with impunity is to expose “the areas that a culture of impunity keeps dark”. Having done that, media are deemed to have fulfilled their share of the burden; the government’s – not the court’s – share of the burden begins. The courts, as part of the justice system, share the burden of the government.

The investigative arm of the Department of Justice Department investigates; the findings are evaluated and on finding a prima facie case, the prosecution arm files a complaint in court. If satisfied with the complaint, the court issues a warrant of arrest. Only after, the accused has been brought to court will the trial start to end either in conviction or acquittal. Will conviction and punishment of the killers stop killings with impunity?

In most cases of killings with impunity, the road to justice stops at the police blotter or with media report and exposés. Even if the killers are apprehended, the masterminds who flaunt impunity are not. However, granting that all cases reach the court – the killers and the masterminds convicted and imprisoned – will that stop killing with impunity?

Will that absolve the government from the blame implied in CMFR’s definition of impunity which is “the failure to punish crime which engenders more crime”?

Punishment of the corrupt will not necessarily eradicate corruption. This truism applies to gambling, smuggling, drug trafficking, etc. The eradication of their roots and favorable environment is what will abolish them. They pay well. As long as they exist, they will breed men and syndicates to keep them flourishing.

Eradication of their roots is the government’s bigger share of the burden. It has failed. As it continues failing, media will keep on their exposés. The “fighters” and the “fearless” among their workers will continue being felled by assassins’ bullets. Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected].)