She had a name, a face, a story, a family, a track record. She had a life. She did not want to become just a number. She is Melinda “Mei” Magsino, a former Inquirer correspondent based in Batangas who was gunned down by an unknown assailant at high noon last Monday. She was 40.
I did not know Mei personally but some editors in the Inquirer did. This tragedy, so close to home, sends the hair-raising message that even former media workers like Mei are not safe. Glaring is the fact that the Philippines ranks third, after Iraq and Somalia, as an unsafe place for journalists. The ranking is based on the number of journalists killed during a period of time.
Mei was the 173rd Filipino journalist killed since democracy was restored in 1986, the 32nd since 2010 when President Aquino was elected into office.
A former editor whom I texted after I learned of the bad news replied: “I was afraid that was Mei. I saw footage in the 6 p.m. news but didn’t catch the name. Very sad, tragic end for another brave journalist. She had come to see me at Inquirer … Last time I heard from her, years ago, she wanted to get a grant or work abroad, Bangkok maybe, to get away from the governor or mayor who hated her guts.”
Inquirer reporter Jerome Aning shared on Facebook a story about Mei that came out in the American Journalism Review in 2005. “Forced Into Hiding” was written by Sherry Richiarddi.
Here are the first paragraphs:
“The reporter made an attempt at a disguise, a cap pulled down to eye level with her long hair tucked out of sight, as she boarded a bus on the outskirts of Manila. Two hours later, she sipped cappuccino in the corner of a nearly deserted restaurant, describing what it is like to be hunted by assassins.
“For Mei Magsino-Lubis, 30, the nightmare began around 10 p.m., July 7, when a source sent a cellular text message warning her that two convicted murderers had been released from a provincial jail with orders to kill her. The advice: ‘Get out now.’
“She grabbed clothes, an ATM card, some cash and a folder of documents and fled into the night, leaving her husband of nine months wondering if he would see her again alive.
“The correspondent for the influential Philippine Daily Inquirer feared that if hit men stormed the house, her husband and in-laws, who shared the same compound, would be in danger. Calling the police wasn’t an option in a region rife with bribery. Instead, a car and driver, supplied by a friend, swept her away from the provincial capital of Batangas City, located south of Manila.
“Magsino-Lubis had written a series of hard-hitting stories linking a powerful governor to illegal gambling and a host of other irregularities. One report focused on the May 30 murder of an official who also was investigating the governor’s activities.
“‘All my emotions have been centered on how to survive,’ says Magsino-Lubis, who has been in eight safe houses since July 7. ‘The first week I was paranoid to the point of going crazy. I couldn’t eat or sleep; I lost 10 pounds.’ She lined up empty bottles in front of the door so ‘I would know if they were coming for me.’”
They came for her last Monday, almost 10 years after that article came out. She was shot once in the head and left lying dead on the street, her blood oozing and forming around her like a red cape.
The Inquirer’s banner photo the next day showed the dead Mei covered with a flattened carton, not newspaper pages that would have made it all look so tragically symbolic. Her red bag lay beside her. The inset photo from her Facebook account showed a smiling face framed by bouncy, long hair that would look good in a shampoo ad.
Separated from her husband, Mei left mainstream journalism and went into a health-related business. But she continued her campaigns in social media. Reports said that her Facebook posts suggested that those whose toes she had stepped on in the past could hound her long after she had switched career gears. Was her death a case of vendetta?
Whatever the motive, the killing looked like the handiwork of the stereotypical hired assassin—motorcycle-riding, decisive and prepared for a fast getaway. But who hired the gunman?
So few killings of journalists, if at all, have been solved. Many, if not most cases, have not reached the vicinity of the courts. No thorough investigation, no witnesses, no direct or circumstantial evidence, no suspects, no trial. But really? What about motives?
I interviewed a true-to-life hired assassin many years ago for a magazine feature story. A half-brother of a high government official, he presented himself to his siblings when he was near the end of his “career” and was promptly taken in as close-in security. He had gunned down some 17 targets during his heyday but knew how to recede into the shadows after a task was accomplished.
So you see, tracking down the likes of him, whose only motive is financial reward, is not easy. Unless the assassin is caught in the act and squeals, the brains who are far removed from the crime scene can rest easy. Assassins for hire have an underground culture all their own that thrives because no one squeals on them.
Not a few persons have come to me to talk about sensitive cases that needed to be laid bare in the media. I would ask them if they would like to come out and be quoted as sources. Their usual answer was no, they feared for their lives, and that it was best if I left their names out and worked on my own.
I would ask: E, paano naman ako? Ako ang mapapatay nito. (What about me? I can get killed for this.)
It is hard to say no. But as in most cases, it is our colleagues in the provinces who take the bullets.
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