April 30, a Monday, was the deadliest day for journalists and media workers in the world since the massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, on Nov. 23, 2009. All told, 11 died in three attacks in two countries. Ten of them died on Monday, in two different cities in Afghanistan; Edmund Sestoso, the radio broadcaster in Dumaguete City who was ambushed on Monday, succumbed to his wounds the following day. Many journalists around the world remembered them and honored their work and their sacrifice yesterday; at one and the same time, it was a poignant and a defiant way to mark World Press Freedom Day.
Sestoso, former chair of the Dumaguete chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), had just wrapped up his popular morning radio show and was headed home. According to witnesses, he was shot multiple times as he was paying his fare to the driver of the tricycle he had used. He bore two gunshot wounds in the chest and one in the stomach, and another one in the leg.
Before fleeing the scene on a black motorcycle, the gunman also shot the tires of another vehicle, a pedicab, that was attempting to bring Sestoso to the hospital. “Good Samaritans had to wait for another vehicle to take the wounded radioman to a health facility, where he was expected to undergo emergency surgery,” the NUJP said in a statement on Monday. On Tuesday at past 3 p.m., Sestoso passed away at the Silliman University Medical Center.
Some 6,000 kilometers away, in Kabul, a bomb blast disrupted the Monday-morning rush hour traffic and killed 17 people. The tragedy was compounded soon after, when in the wake of the first explosion, a suicide bomber joined a group of journalists who had rushed to the blast site, and then struck. Nine journalists were killed in what witnesses said was a deliberate targeting of the reporters and photographers who were covering the first explosion. A spokesperson for the Afghan interior ministry said the suicide bomber had presented a press card to the police manning the site of the bomb blast, before moving closer to the journalists who had gathered in one part of the site.
“We were standing on a slight rise to get a better shot when I heard a bang and saw him on the ground. I was stunned, I couldn’t believe it,” said Reuters photographer Omar Sobhani, who had survived with minor injuries. He was referring to Shah Marai, chief photographer of Agence France-Presse in Afghanistan, a journalist with more than two decades of experience. Marai joined the news agency as a driver in 1996, then became a coordinator (the industry term is “fixer”), then in 2002 assumed a full-time position as photographer. He documented some of his country’s most difficult years, including the rise and fall and rise again of the Taliban.
On the other end of the experience scale, Maharram Durrani was a 28-year-old journalist for Radio Azadi, who had gone to the blast site to see if she could help out; she had started work only the week before.
The seven other journalists who were deliberately targeted for assassination included cameraman Yar Mohammad Tokhi of Tolo News, who was to marry his girlfriend in weeks; Abadullah Hananzai, all of 26, and Sabawoon Kakar, 30, who worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; reporter Ghazi Rasuli and cameraman Nawruz Ali Rajabi of 1TV; and Salim Talash and Ali Salimi of Mashal TV.
One more journalist died on Monday: Ahmad Shad of the BBC’s Afghan Service was shot by unknown armed men in Khost, a 200-km drive from Kabul. According to witnesses, Shah was riding a bicycle when he was attacked. He died in the hospital where he had been brought, on the same day.
Reflecting on the deadly day (which also claimed the lives of 11 children in a suicide bombing in Kandahar province—yet another tragedy), AFP CEO Fabrice Fries sought to ground the media industry’s profound pain and sense of unease in journalism’s higher calling: “This tragedy reminds us of the danger that our teams continually face on the ground and the essential role journalists play for democracy.” There are days, such as last Monday, when the danger becomes all too real, and the journalists fulfilling their essential role pay the all-too-final price.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.