A personal perspective

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Last week, as part of a project I’m working on, I had the chance to talk with Nonoy Espina, the Vice-Chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Mr. Espina is also a 20-year veteran of the Filipino press. We spoke about recent killings of reporters who have been critical of government officials, freedom of expression in the Philippines, and the prospects for change under the new President, who was inaugurated on Wednesday. As I mentioned in a previous post, politically-motivated killings of reporters and activists are all-too-common here in the Philippines; recently three reporters were killed in less than a week.

I’ve decided to post a transcript of part of our conversation. I think it might be interesting to readers of this blog because it provides a personal perspective on what it’s like to work in a country where rights to life and freedom of expression are often violated. Since we talked for more than half an hour, I’ve edited our conversation for brevity, with Mr. Espina’s permission.

What was your reaction to the recent killings?

During a transition phase, you expect a lot of things. I think the message here with these killings is that the perpetrators really don’t care. It doesn’t matter who is in power, they’re confident enough that they will get away with it. It really shows the level of impunity of people in this country. They really feel that they can get away with anything.

Why is there such impunity; why does it not matter who’s in power?

The answer comes on different levels. On the first level, there is the political system we have, the system of government that’s gone on for so long. There’s a lot of political patronage, especially in the provinces, where you have people from a few elite families lording their wealth over others. Many of them are warlords and many of them were, and probably still are, crimelords.

The national government has always operated on the basis of political expediency. It needs these people to deliver votes, and so it allies itself with these guys and that’s what allows the [politicians in] government to stay so strong, it’s what allows them to get away with a lot. The perfect example is Maguindanao – where you had one family lording their power over the province.

That kind of system is everywhere; it subsists in a lot of provinces, but to varying degrees of course. It goes on at a lot of levels. Sometimes, it’s so bad that it runs all the way down to the village level […].

The problem is that the government has never really shown it cared. Just take the nine years of [Gloria] Arroyo’s Presidency. We’ve got something like 103 journalists dead and something like nine convictions, all of gunmen, none of masterminds. And I think that ties in to the political side of things. I’d bet anything that if you dig into these cases, a lot of these names are going to show up – mayor so-and-so, governor so-and-so, and so on. The latest killing, they’re saying that it was the vice-mayor who was the mastermind.

So tell me how all this affects your day-to-day work as a journalist.

In the provinces, where I worked for more than two decades, politics can get really personal. Some politicians really believe that public office is a privilege, it’s like they act like feudal lords. So you know that if you cross them, it can have dire results.

To what degree do journalists find themselves compromising on their work as a result of this?

To be honest, a lot. Sometimes journalists are so poorly paid that there are cases where local radio stations say to politicians, ‘Mr. Congressman, can you take care of our local reporter working in your district?’ So the congressman actually pays the journalist’s wages. You can’t expect him to report anything bad about the congressman.

So it sounds like there’s a financial factor weighing in here alongside the fear of getting killed if you cross these guys.

Yes, that’s true. In fact in some places, it’s either you take the envelope or you take the bullet. That’s no choice at all.

What about you and your reporting? Do you still try to challenge corrupt officials?

I’ve always done that.

Have you written stories where, after publication, you find yourself looking over your shoulder?

Oh, yes I have. I’ve almost lost my life, in fact.

How did you almost lose your life?

Well, back in 1989, I was almost picked up by military intelligence. Not to blow my own horn, but in Negros, I was like the resident insurgency specialist. I reported on the insurgency a lot and the social conditions that caused the insurgency. And if you do that, you get on the order of battle list, you’re automatically labeled an ‘enemy of the state’ and stuff like that. So one time they tried to pick me up.

I was lucky. My reaction to extreme danger is not freeze or run; everything sort of slows down. I remember the first thought that I had was that they were not going to take me alive. They were stupid enough to try to pick me up on my own street, so I just talked loud enough to attract attention. I just kept my voice up loudly so that people came into the street. They asked if I was okay and I said ‘yeah, I’m just talking to my friends here,’ but I got them to stick around, saying stuff like ‘just stay here; I want to talk to you later.’ That pretty much limited the soldiers’ options, so they left. And that’s when I just slumped to the ground, trembling.

And yet sometimes, like this week, even when there’s witnesses around…

Yeah, they’ll still do it. When that happens, you’re dealing with hired killers, and planned hits. In my case, it was probably more of a political thing where they probably wanted to take me and torture me into some kind of confession. I wasn’t about to let them do that. I was scared, though. There are a few other times where I’ve practically French-kissed the muzzle of a gun. Probably the worst thing that happened to me was getting a text message that said, ‘tomorrow, you’ll be writing about your family.’

So how do you live life with these threats, knowing that you can be killed just for doing your job?

You just do what you have to do, I guess. I’m not trying to sound brave or anything, but I guess I’ve always believed that someone has to tell these stories. It’s sad; a lot of the reporting on the troubles people are experiencing does not delve into why they are taking place. I don’t think government likes people thinking about that.

I imagine that people are still thinking a lot about the troubles in Maguindanao and the November massacre, which you alluded to earlier. How did that affect you? To what extent did it make you reconsider your chosen line of work?

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but I’m still traumatized by Maguindanao. For about a month afterwards, I kept being bothered by thoughts of it. There was nothing I could do to stop them, they just kept recurring and recurring, but I’ve pretty much gotten over that. […] I remember when I went there [during the aftermath], everyday bodies were still turning up and I kept wondering – is this not ever going to stop? It was a bad scene.

What can be done on the legal side of things to help stop killings like this from happening? Are there legislative initiatives that need to be taken or is it just a matter of enforcing the laws that are on the books?

You know, there really are too many laws in this country. There have in fact been calls for a law to amend the penal code to make the murder of journalists a more serious crime than ordinary murder. But we don’t want that, actually.

Why not?

Because we don’t want to be treated like anyone special. We don’t actually consider ourselves better than any other poor guys being bumped off. A life is a life is a life. All we’re asking is that people enforce the law, and do their duty to protect people’s lives. You know, sometimes we get cynical about lip-service pronouncements, but there is something to be said for moral suasion. If our leaders were serious enough about this, probably all they would need to do is just give a clear, unequivocal order to get the killers and stop the killings. And we’ve been asking [President] Gloria [Arroyo] to do that for nine years. She’s never done it.

So what’s your outlook? Are you hopeful for the future (now that a new president, Noynoy Aquino, is coming into power)?

Well, I don’t know […]. It’s important that we not give him a honeymoon of justice; lives are at stake here. More than a hundred lives have been lost, and hundreds more are in danger. We look at this as a matter of state accountability. It isn’t just Gloria that needs to be made accountable. Noynoy should also be made accountable, for making sure that lives are protected and that justice is being served.

Following Up: More Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

In my last post, I mentioned the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists and 57 people in total were killed for registering their dissent against the Ampatuan family. The Ampatuans had maintained a stranglehold on political power in Maguindanao through corruption and intimidation.

The prosecution’s strongest witness in the ensuing trial has recently been gunned down. It’s rumoured that the Ampatuans are involved. See the news links below:

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100624-277293/Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killedprosecutor
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100628-278050/Four-suspects-tagged-in-Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killing
http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/06/28/10/ampatuans-linked-gunman%E2%80%99s-death-says-roque

The Filipino Culture of Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Today I was finally going to publish my introductory post, the one that says “here I am in the Philippines and this is what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Working at the Ateneo Human Rights Center has been an enriching experience, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m finally adapting to the culture…”

All of that is true. But today I want to write about something else: three local journalists killed in less than a week, just for speaking their minds.

Gunned down in public. Even though such killings have happened many times before, I can’t believe the news.

I didn’t know what to say after the first two journalists were killed, hence the absence of a blog post on the subject. I was shocked. I still am, especially now that a third journalist has died, but I feel an obligation to write something on the subject to draw people’s attention to the news since it hasn’t been making headlines in Canada.

The first killing happened five days ago. Desidario Camangyan, a radio reporter who had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to illegal logging practices, was shot while hosting an amateur singing contest. His wife and son were in the audience.

Less than 24 hours later, Joselito Agustin, another radio broadcaster, was shot and killed while on his way home from work. Like Camangyan, Agustin had spoken out against government corruption.

This weekend, Nestor Bedolido, a newspaper reporter, was shot and killed as he was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. Belodido was supposedly behind a number of scathing exposes written about an allegedly corrupt politician in Davao del Sur.

So far no one has been arrested and all but one of the suspects are unidentified.

The killings bring the number of journalists killed in the Philippines to 107 – and that’s just in the last nine years, since President Gloria Arroyo took power in 2001. Since the inception of democracy in 1986, 140 have been killed in total.

Before posting some news links and a few thoughts, I should mention that all of this comes only seven months after the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists lost their lives for taking political action, for merely deigning to defy a local “politician-warlord” who had maintained a stranglehold on power through corruption and intimidation.

News links are below (links are posted first; my thoughts are underneath), with a Wikipedia entry on the Massacre that links to stories published in late 2009. About a week and a half ago, an activist came into our office with pictures of the victims of Maguindanao – they were by far the most shocking images I have ever seen.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20100621-276729/Another-journalist-killed
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/world/asia/21iht-phils.html
http://cpj.org/2010/06/another-radio-journalist-killed-in-the-philippines.php
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/topstories/topstories/view/20100615-275715/Radioman-shot-dead-in-Davao-Oriental
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maguindanao_massacre

So that’s the news. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, given the circumstances, there’s little doubt that these killings are politically motivated. The two most recent ones meet the profile of the typical Filipino political killing: a gunman walks up to the victim in the middle of the street, fires, and rides away on the back of a motorcycle that’s waiting nearby. Too many journalists, lawyers and activists have been killed this way, usually after expressing criticism of the government or left-wing political views. Too few of the men and women behind these killings have been brought to justice – there have only been a handful of convictions.

Second, it’s disheartening that even after a UN Special Rapporteur report on extrajudicial (that is, illegal and political) killings in the Philippines, a local commission-of-inquiry report on the matter, the creation of a national Commission on Human Rights, and the creation of a national police task force, extrajudicial killings continue to take place – and the perpetrators seem as bold as ever. Some of the gunmen don’t even hide their faces – a telling sign that they know they can count on a culture of impunity.

Like the Maguindanao Massacre, I guess this series of killings reflects what is often the reality of human rights legal work – you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight. That said, there are signs that extrajudicial killings generally are tapering off – there are fewer per year now than there were in 2006, when there were 209 in total. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change.

This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.

I want to end on a positive note. The Ateneo Human Rights Center is doing a lot to help prevent extrajudicial killings and give prosecutors and investigators the tools they need to obtain convictions. In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in two really interesting projects to this end. First, I’m involved in the planning of a national public awareness campaign; staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country. Second, I’m helping with the creation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, which are locally-based collectives of legal and human rights experts who come together to provide support to victims when an extralegal killing takes place.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to help out with these initiatives. Hopefully, along with this week’s bad news, they’ll get people thinking about how to dismantle the infrastructure of impunity that allows violations of rights to life and free expression to keep happening.

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