Philippine government's attitude to media killings

In the span of 12 days, four journalists in four provinces were attacked by unidentified gunmen. Three of them died, and one was seriously injured. If this murderous spree does not set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of Malacanang, perhaps there aren't any alarm bells in place?

The spree started a week after Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma downplayed international criticism of the killing of journalists in the Philippines. At one point, he said that if the 32 media-worker victims in the 2009 massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, were removed from the list of journalists killed, because the massacre was a special case, then the problem wouldn't be as serious. "Hindi naman ganun kaseryoso o kalala yung problemang yun (That problem won't be as serious or as bad)," he told reporters.

Coloma has since backtracked on that insensitive statement. Now he has more backtracking to do.

On November 29, in Valencia, Bukidnon, radio anchor Joas Dignos fell to assassins' bullets. On December 7, in Tandag, Surigao del Sur, radio station supervisor Michael Milo was killed while he was riding his motorcycle. On December 10, in Iloilo City, radio reporter Jonavin Villalba was shot at as he was entering the gate to his house; he managed to survive. And on December 11, in Tagum, Davao del Norte, Rogelio Butalid was shot outside his radio station soon after he had signed off from his radio programme.

It is not yet clear whether each of these four incidents is work-related. Dignos had taken to recording his hard-hitting commentary because of previous death threats. Just last June, a grenade was thrown at his radio station. Butalid ran stinging commentary, too, but was also involved in barangay politics. Villalba was not a radio anchor, which prompted his station manager to wonder whether a message was being sent. But the laws of probability should tell us that at least one or more of the four incidents must have been provoked by work-that is, by radio reporting or commentary that did not please certain parties.

In Camp Crame, Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima said initial investigation did not yield a pattern that would have linked the three killings. "At this early stage of investigation, there are no peculiar indications of a link that can connect the three incidents," he said Thursday.

That may be true, but we can see a pattern-and it is hard to miss.

All three victims in the last two weeks were shot by men riding tandem on motorcycles. (In Butalid's case, the shooter was on foot, but escaped the scene when he ran to a waiting motorcycle, driven by an accomplice.) All three were radio personalities. And all three were victims of a continuing inability on the part of the authorities to stop the killing of journalists.

Butalid's death brings the number of journalist killings under the Aquino administration to 21, by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines' count; to 22, by that of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility; and to 26, by that of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

In a special report that was run last month, to mark the fourth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, PCIJ noted that "during Aquino's first 40 months in office, from July 2010 to October 2013, at least 23 journalists were killed, among them 16 radio broadcasters and seven print journalists. It is a trail of blood redder, thicker, and worse compared to the number of work-related media murders per year under four other presidents before him …"

And in a statement issued the other day, the NUJP lambasted the administration for essentially doing nothing to stop the killings. "This government, which came to power on the promise of justice and human rights and 'daang matuwid' (a straight path) chooses not only to downplay the enormity of the problem but denigrates the victims by deigning to dismiss some of them as 'not legitimate.'"

The Palace must respond resolutely, by accepting that there is in fact a problem of growing proportions, and that current arrangements and procedures have been fatally ineffective. And it can begin by changing its apathetic vocabulary. Coloma called the news about Butalid's killing "saddening." That is not nearly enough. Try "outrageous."