Two journalists were killed because of their work in 2007, fewer than in previous years but constant threats and physical attacks make some regions, particularly Mindanao island, dangerous areas. The press managed to defend its rights despite judicial harassment from some political figures that led to journalists being imprisoned.
Hired killers continued to strike in the Philippines. Carmelo Palacios, of public dzRB Radio ng Bayan, in Nueva Ecija province in the north, was murdered on 17 April. Police themselves confirmed that the motive appeared most likely connected to this work. His body showed signs of injuries and he had bullet wounds to the face. Palacios worked on reports exposing corruption and he collaborated with the police to break up criminal gangs through the programme Citizens Crime Watch. At the time of his death, he was investigating cases of misuse of power on the part of police officers and local officials.
On Christmas Eve, two men riding on a motorbike shot dead Ferdinand Lintuan, a presenter on DXGO Radio, in Davao City, Mindanao island while he was travelling in a car with two colleagues, Louie Ceniza and Edgar Banzon. He was hit in the head by a bullet fired at point blank range and died instantly. He had been critical of local officials; in particular he had accused the governor of Davao of corruption in the development of a “People’s park” project, which he had dubbed the “crocodile park”. A few days later, police arrested a former soldier believed to have been hired to kill the journalist.
Local journalists’ organisations condemned the actions of a death squad linked to the congressman of Davao, Prospero Nograles, whose advisor retired general Jovito Palparan human rights groups accuse of a number of murders.
Four other journalists were killed in 2007, but it has been impossible to determine whether the reasons for the murders were linked to their work as journalists. There were also at least ten murder attempts on journalists during the year. In April two men shot at Delfin Mallari, of the Philippine Daily Inquirer in South Luzon and Johnny Glorioso, of radio DZMM, in the south of Manila. One bullet hit Delfin Mallari, who reports on timber and drug trafficking. A few days later the governor of Quezon, Rafael Nantes, took the two journalists to court. Delfin Mallari told the press that the legislator was the instigator of the murder attempt against him and his colleague. The governor responded, “There will be bloodshed if I lose the elections”. In July, it was an official in the transport minister who attempted to kill Ferdinand "Bambi" Yngson, of radio RGMA-Bacolod in Sagay City, Western Negros province, south-west of Manila after the reporter exposed embezzlement and unfair practices on the part of officials enforcing road regulations.
Jose Cagalawan Pantoja, of radio dxLS in Iligan, in the south of the Philippines suffered the same fate, when two men riding on a motorbike shot him several times in the stomach, leaving him seriously injured. He presents a daily programme “Katawhan Alagaran” (Serve the people), exposing corruption and criticising the governor Lanao del Norte, Vincente Belmonte. His remarks have landed him with numerous defamation suits, several of which were dismissed. Jose Cagalawan Pantoja was also spokesman for the former governor of Lanao del Norte, Imelda Dimaporo, who was beaten by Vincente Belmonte at the last elections.
The media which do most to expose corruption and abuse by armed gangs on Mindanao island have been the target of violence. Several vehicles belonging to radio dxCC in Cagayan de Oro, in the north of Mindanao, were damaged in a bomb attack outside the station in March. The radio’s director, Zaldy Ocon, received a death threat via a text on his mobile phone shortly before the attack.
Success in the fight against impunity?
The police task force charged with investigating murders of journalists has had a degree of success. Two suspects in the 2001 murder of journalist Rolando Ureta were arrested in November. According to official statistics, there was a reduction of more than 80% in murders of journalists, trade unions and opposition figures during the year.
However it will be a long struggle to really put an end to impunity. A very detailed report by a UN group of experts, headed by Philip Alston, concluded that some sections of the army were implicated in extra-judicial killings of left wing activists, including journalists.
Families of murder victims who fight impunity have ended up being threatened themselves. This happened to Nena Santos, a lawyer and friend of the journalist Marlene Esperat, who was murdered in 2005. She received several death threats while she was working on the case.
It is rare in the Philippines for journalists to receive prison sentences but a presenter of dxMF Bombo Radyo, Alex Adonis, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in January for defaming Prospero Nograles, a member of parliament, reportedly close to President Gloria Arroyo, who sued him for remarks about an alleged affair he had in 2001. The young journalist, who was on a salary of 150 dollars a month, could not afford to hire a lawyer to defend him at his trial. He was imprisoned in Davao jail. Director of the radio, Dan Vicente, his co-accused, was acquitted.
Police arrested Gemma Bagauaya, director of the online magazine Newsbreak (www.newsbreak.com.ph), at her office near Manila in March after Luis "Chabit" Singson, governor of Illoco Sur province and a political ally of Gloria Arroyo, opened a libel suit against her. She was released on bail a few hours later. The Bangkok correspondent of the Asia News Network, Jofelle Tesorio, was imprisoned in Quezon jail in June over a series of articles written in 2003 about a natural gas project in Camago-Malampaya, in Palawan, alleging wrong-doing against former deputy Vicente Sandoval, who won his defamation case. The journalist was set free a few days later.
The authorities took it out on the press when in November they faced with a military revolt. Several dozen journalists were arrested close to a hotel in Manila where around 30 soldiers were holed up and calling for the president’s resignation. The journalists, including several foreign press correspondents, were questioned about “obstruction of justice”. Police said they needed to check that none of the rebels had escaped by hiding among the journalists.
Finally, the president’s husband, Mike Arroyo, decided on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, to drop legal action which he had first opened against 46 journalists and editors in 2003. Philippines journalist organisations had campaigned very effectively to get the country’s “First gentleman” to back down, taking him to court themselves in December 2006 over the unacceptable nature of his accusations.