NINOTCHKA ROSCA: ‘Journalists killed with impunity in the Philippines’

Community News & Features Mar 1, 2005 at 4:53 pm

TORONTO–Last year, 2004, 13 media people were killed in the Philippines,  ranking the country the  second highest in the world in terms of media killings, second to Iraq — and not a single person has been prosecuted for the murder and killing of these journalists, said Ninotchka Rosca, book author and journalist.

Unlike in Iraq, however, where journalists die in a war situation, in the Philippines, journalists killed are those in the rural areas writing about graft and corruption and human rights abuses of those in power, Rosca told her audience of around 50 media and non-media people from the community in a forum, “How Free is the Philippine Press,” held Sunday, Feb. 13 at Filipino Centre- Toronto (FCT).  The forum was jointly sponsored by The Philippine Reporter and Balita.

“Nobody has been held accountable, prosecuted and charged for these killings. If the risk of speaking out freely is to die, then there is no democratic process,” Rosca said.

Out of the lively and interactive discussion between Rosca and the audience, a petition to the Philippine government was drafted and signed by majority of those in attendance.  The petition reads:

“We are concerned about the killings of journalists in the Philippines.

“We demand that the government of the Philippines investigate and prosecute those responsible for the killings.

“We expect concrete results of this investigation and prosecution with the actual conviction of those guilty of these crimes within a reasonable time period.”

The statement was immediately signed by 30 “concerned Filipino-Canadians”   at the forum, and is now being circulated widely for signatures not only in the Filipino community but also in the mainstream community.  Based on suggestions from the audience, the statement will be submitted to the Philippine government, and will gather endorsements from media institutions like PEN Canada, and Canadian media establishments.

The statement is in support of an ongoing campaign launched by the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) – a nationwide organization of journalists in the country – whose own statement started late last year has already gathered signatures worldwide.

In a related development, the concern about the killing of journalists in the Philippines and other critical areas in the world has alarmed the International Federation of Journalists, as Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, was recently quoted in Philippine media to have declared that “the crisis of news safety has reached an intolerable level and must be addressed urgently.”

Rosca, who has authored six books – one of which won the 1993 American Book Award for excellence in literature, and has written for various Philippine, U.S. and international publications like The Village Voice, Q, MS Magazine, The Nation, and Internationale, said that whether in the Philippines or elsewhere, there are three factors that affect press freedom:  (1) media ownership; (2) legal and physical treats to journalists; and (3) corruption.

On media ownership in the Philippines, which includes, she said, rich families and their cronies, such as Romualdez, Marcos, Cojuangco, Prieto, Lopez, among others:  “Structurally, the ownership of all these major newspapers (and broadcast media) is geared towards the ruling class of the Philippines. So ownership is the first restriction on press freedom. And if owners of a newspaper or publication happen to run counter to the dominant bias of the (ruling class) culture, then the owners are going to be in great trouble.”

She noted, as an example, the arrest and incarceration in 1969 of The Dumaguete Times editor and staffers – among them Hermie and Mila Garcia of Toronto’s The Philippine Reporter – who exposed the landgrabbing abuses by hacenderos in Negros Oriental.  The Garcias, as well as Balita publisher and editor, Ruben Cusipag, and Rosca herself were among the hundreds of journalists and writers critical of the Marcos dictatorship who were jailed in detention centers during martial law.

There are also those media organizations that Rosca described as very independent and write about the real situation in the Philippines, such as Bulatlat, a cooperative that publishes on the Internet, and is generating an increasing readership all over the world.  “Professional journalists write for Bulatlat for free, such as the New York Times correspondent in the Philippines,” says Rosca.  She also asked Edwin Mercurio, The Philippine Reporter’s staff writer, and Bulatlat correspondent, who was at the forum, to tell the audience more about this unique media service.  Mercurio confirmed that writers like him indeed contribute to Bulatlat for free.

On legal threats, Rosca said:  “In the old days, before Marcos messed up everything, there was hardly any libel case in the Philippines. The filing of libel cases started with the Aquino regime.  Mrs. Aquino sued Louie Beltran. So now everybody is like getting sued.  You say something about somebody and you get sued.  And if you are a reporter earning only a small amount of money, you can barely defend yourself; the legal threat also affects the owners of newspapers, so it’s a double threat.”

On physical threats:  “Last year, 2004, 13 people were killed in the Philippines… this makes us the second highest in the world.  Number one is Iraq.  In 2003, there were seven.  Over the 14 years of the Marcos regime, the rate by which media people were killed was 2.5 per annum.  Under the Aquino regime, 5.6.  Under Gloria, 4.6 per annum over only two to three years.  Most reporters killed are those from the rural areas writing about graft and corruption.  Since Marcos’s time, no one has been prosecuted for killing a journalist.”

On corruption in the media, where the moneyed sector manipulates to corrupt the generally low-paid media practitioners to serve the formers’ interests:  “You have ‘blood money’ which is given before a journalist does someone a favor; ‘smiling money’ after the job is done; and then, there is AC/DC, attack and collect, defend and collect.”

“The average pay of journalists in the Philippines is five thousand pesos (P5,000), while average apartment rent is eight thousand pesos (P8,000),” Rosca said.  Also, journalists are lured into becoming consultants to politicians; to accept contracts to do a supposedly journalistic-format show, where scripted questions are actually bought for three thousand pesos each, so the interviewee can exploit the opportunity to promote his interest by answering his planted question. Rosca called it the interlocking of the journalist’s job with his business interest, or PR journalism, considered a conflict of interest, or unethical media practice.

Rosca then concluded with the question, “What can you do,” at which point, the lively interaction resulted in the spontaneously drafted position paper, where over 30 members of the Filpino community media, reporters from CLKN and CBC and community leaders and members penned their signatures to signify their support to seek justice for the journalists killed for doing their job.  One community leader went further to suggest that the families of the journalist victims should be compensated.

To the many journalists in the audience, all of them signatories to the statement, the forum was a success in involving themselves and the community in learning about and acting on a critical issue as the killing of Filipino journalists.  To the speaker, it was an actualization of her position, which she articulated twice during the forum that “the main function of press freedom is to help the public determine what is the common good.”

The forum was made possible through the organizing efforts of The Philippine Reporter and Balita’s  Managing Editor, Tess Cusipag, who also coordinated food generously provided by  herself and  donors; and the support of FCT, who made available the venue for the media community event.

Media organizations represented at the forum were Balita, The Philippine Reporter, Filipino Bulletin, Front Page TV, Media Monitor, Bulatlat, The Philippine Courier, Taliba and CKLN Radio.