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Southeast Asia’s most dangerous country for journalists

/ 12:20 AM November 09, 2015

AS THOUGH in advance commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, the Philippines churned out the bullet-riddled cadaver of another member of the profession.

Jose Bernardo was repeatedly shot and killed by motorcycle-riding men outside a restaurant in Quezon City, just two days before the start of the United Nations campaign to end impunity against journalists, slated yearly on Nov. 2-23.

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Bernardo was a reporter and broadcaster for dwBL radio and also a reporter for dwIZ radio, both Manila-based radio stations.

Police have yet to identify Bernardo’s killers and establish if the murder had anything to do with his work as a journalist. But most killings of journalists conceal a work connection because leaving traces in this regard provides the equivalent of blood-stained footsteps leading to the killers’ doorsteps.

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The murder of Bernardo occurred while the Philippines marks the sixth anniversary of the November 2009 Ampatuan massacre. Of the 58 people killed in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, 32 were members of the media, making this horrendous slaughter the most murderous single event against journalists in the world.

In the aftermath of the Ampatuan massacre, there were promises that the killing of journalists would be abated. Notwithstanding these avowals, an additional 32 journalists have been killed since the 2009 massacre, as tallied by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Notwithstanding these avowals, the Philippines remains in the top three most dangerous countries for journalists in the world, after the war-torn countries of Iraq and Syria.

“[The] Philippines isn’t a war zone. But the body count rivals that [of] some of the most dangerous countries,” CNN quoted Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, as saying in a report last May 5.

Even before I joined the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I have been part of a group of lawyers under the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), whose advocacies include defending persecuted journalists and prosecuting those who persecute journalists in Southeast Asia. Centerlaw lawyers represent the families of 13 journalist-victims in the Ampatuan massacre trial, apart from defending journalists charged with criminal libel. In other Southeast Asian countries, Centerlaw has extended legal support to persecuted journalists and bloggers by bringing their cases to the UN human rights mechanisms or by filing memoranda (amicus briefs) in the national courts trying their cases, in addition to trial observation duties.

As may be gleaned from the exchange of experiences and country reports during international conferences and workshops attended or organized by Centerlaw, the Philippines is the envy of everyone in Southeast Asia when it comes to the existence of laws that guarantee freedom of expression. The Philippines is likewise envied when it comes to the vibrancy of its press in exposing all kinds of corruption among public officials.

We Filipinos take for granted the benefits of a free press, to the point that a number of us get tired of or become inured to exposés of corruption as investigated and reported incessantly by journalists. They fail to realize how citizens of other Southeast Asian countries yearn for a press as free and vibrant as ours in exposing all shades of corruption in their own societies.

A similar exercise of the kind of courageous independence demonstrated daily by our journalists would result in prison terms if attempted in many of our Southeast Asian neighbors.

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However, our enjoyment of a free press comes at a very heavy price. Our journalists are sacrificing their lives to guarantee our daily dose of discovered proofs that unmask many of our chosen leaders as false prophets in disguise. The frequency in the killing of Filipino journalists exposes the gruesome truth that beneath the surface of a free press is a ritual of human sacrifice. It is as if we live in the time of the Incas and the Aztecs when humans were sacrificed to appease the gods and obtain, for our present lives, the continued blessing of a free press.

The regularity in the killing of journalists shames and disgraces the Philippines as the most dangerous country for journalists in the entire Southeast Asia.

These killings greatly erode the willingness of Filipino journalists to expose abuses and their ability to generate a public shaming of injustice, both of which enable them to provide a shield of protection to victims of wrongdoing. This shield of protection that can be extended by journalists is often the only weapon available to victims of injustice against gun-wielding political and economic warlords.

In the midst of a very serious crisis that threatens the lives of Filipino journalists, erodes our right to critical information, and disarms the shaming power of the press against perpetrators of injustice, there is an urgent need for all sectors of our society to add our voices to the collective defense of the hallowed principle that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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The UP Law grand alumni homecoming, hosted by Class of 1990, will be held on Nov. 13 starting at 6 p.m. at New World Hotel Makati.

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TAGS: Media killings, nation, news, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists
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