The fight for press freedom is local | Inquirer Opinion
World View

The fight for press freedom is local

AMSTERDAM — A macabre political thriller recently unfolded in the province of Palawan, an island known mostly for its rich biodiversity and pristine beaches. In the May 9 elections, Joel T. Reyes, the alleged mastermind of the 2011 murder of well-known radio broadcaster Gerry Ortega, again ran for governor. Had Reyes won, the possibility for Ortega’s family to obtain justice for the killing would have dwindled. Fortunately for them, Reyes lost.

Although incidents like the Ortega murder might seem extreme, they are more common than many realize. Powerful authoritarian subnational elites such as Reyes, supported by a political milieu that often guarantees them impunity, pose the deadliest threat to journalists.

Ortega was fatally shot after he publicly accused Reyes, Palawan’s governor from 2002 to 2011, of embezzlement. All members of the hit squad were soon arrested and subsequently confessed to the killing. But, despite strong evidence that Reyes ordered the murder, prosecutors refrained from indicting him.


A circuitous back and forth in the courts followed, with the decade-long legal battle between the Ortega and Reyes families marked by a Court of Appeals (CA) decision that cleared the former official in January 2018. When the case ponente had left the appellate court, the CA reversed its previous ruling and moved to have Reyes rearrested.


The warrant for Reyes’ arrest, filed in 2021, was however temporarily lifted, enabling him to campaign openly for the governorship. Meanwhile, Ortega’s family, their lawyers, and the Office of the Solicitor General have formally requested the Supreme Court to order Reyes’ immediate arrest — a step supported by global press freedom organizations.

Whether Reyes is prosecuted soon has important implications for press freedom in the Philippines. The country currently ranks 147th in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, not least because of the lack of safety for journalists. Widespread impunity or partial impunity for their killings is a security concern for all journalists in the Philippines.

Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern about the potential effect on press freedom of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s ascendancy to the presidency. But for many journalists, especially in large, decentralized countries such as the Philippines, who holds power at the regional and local level matters just as much — or even more. In young democracies with relatively weak institutions, authoritarian subnational leaders can rule in ways some national-level autocrats can only dream of. Clientelism and patronage give them the means to win elections, and sometimes plunder public resources.

In such contexts, journalists like Ortega are democracy’s last hope. Authoritarian local leaders still care about their image, since a loss of face might lead central institutions to intervene. The murder of journalists at the behest of such elites is a grimmer point on the continuum of repression.

Without access to accurate, objective information, there can be no free and fair local elections. The fact that democracy is the only game in town at the national level is scant reassurance for those living in a state or province ruled by a local autocrat. In Veracruz, Mexico under Duarte’s administration, for example, 18 journalists were murdered with nearly complete impunity, and state prosecutors have been accused of torturing a local sex worker into falsely confessing to the murder of journalist Regina Martínez Pérez.

Unsurprisingly, both executive and judicial institutions are weak in such settings — how else could these local authoritarian rulers emerge? In the Ortega case in the Philippines, allegations of bribery within the judiciary are rife.


While it is difficult to uncover how and by whom a journalist has been murdered, assessing the exact intentions of local authorities during an investigation can be even tougher. One possible solution is to establish independent prosecutorial bodies to investigate the murders of journalists, and to monitor the local implementation of the United Nations guidelines for prosecutors on cases of crimes against journalists. But such efforts require political will from central governments.

Another way to combat impunity for the murder of journalists is through increased efforts to investigate cold cases. The project “A Safer World for the Truth” — a collaboration between Free Press Unlimited, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders — is currently conducting such investigations. New findings can sometimes lead to these cases being reopened. As at-risk journalists everywhere will confirm, the local struggle for press freedom and democracy matters just as much.

—Project Syndicate

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Jos Midas Bartman is research coordinator for “A Safer World for the Truth” at Free Press Unlimited.

TAGS: Gerry Ortega, press freedom, Project Syndicate, World View

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