On November 23, reporters in the Philippines endured the deadliest single attack on journalists anywhere in the world. According to the latest reports, 29 journalists were assassinated along with 28 civilians in Maguindanao province.
The tragedy occurred when 100 gunmen ambushed the convoy of Ismael Mangudadatu -- on its way to register his candidacy as provincial governor. Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. was accused of orchestrating the massacre.
The attack has shocked the world and triggered questions about journalist safety. Sheila S. Coronel (pictured at right), director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at New York's Columbia University and co-founder of the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism, described the event as "collateral damage" for journalists. To shed light on the massacre, Coronel spoke to IJNet last week.
Describe the situation of journalists in the Philippines. What are the major challenges?
The Philippines has a free press, freer than other countries in Southeast Asia. But the paradox is that it also has the highest casualty count for journalists in the region. There are more journalists killed there than in other place in Asia. Most of them are targeted by local political bosses and criminals for reporting on crime and corruption. Over 60 Filipino reporters have been killed since the fall of [Ferdinand E.] Marcos in 1986 [President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986] and in only three or four of these cases have the murderers been prosecuted. A climate of impunity encourages more killings and sends the message that it is possible to kill journalists and get away with it.
Has the government done anything in response?
Not enough. The problem is that the courts and the police are often compromised. Arrest warrants against suspected killers are rarely served, witnesses are afraid to testify, and in some places, judges have not been impartial. There is a breakdown in the rule of law and the central government has not been able to clean up the criminal justice system. This is true not just for cases against journalists -- ordinary citizens suffer a lot more.
Could we prevent this from happening in the future, and if so, how?
There were already warnings about possible violence resulting from intense clan rivalry in Maguindanao, the site of the massacre. The police and the Army -- and the national government -- should have taken action earlier. For example, they could have disarmed the civilian militias who are believed to have been responsible for the killings.
Arresting impunity is the best solution. If those who murder journalists know that they will be brought to court and jailed, this would discourage more killings.
What would you say to prospective journalists in the Philippines who are worried to get into this field?
Journalists in Manila and the big cities are safe. Those who work in remote areas where local leaders are often unaccountable face real dangers. The massacre last Monday was unprecedented. Journalists who are killed in the Philippines are rarely killed in the crossfire, as what happened last Monday. They are targeted by hired guns and often receive threats before they are gunned down.
Journalists should take threats seriously. There are a number of precautions they can take, but this is not an exhaustive list: They should consider lying low and leaving the areas where they work for safer
places; they should take security precautions, including varying their daily routines and taking different routes from home to office; they should publicize the threats and demand government protection.
Journalists' associations should also be more proactive in protecting their members. They can set up safe houses for threatened journalists and raise funds that will allow these journalists to leave the country if needed. They can send fact-finding missions to places where journalists have been attacked. The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition of organizations representing journalists and media owners, is already doing this.
What role can international organizations play to improve the situation?
International organizations can help raise awareness about the plight of Filipino journalists under threat. They can demand that the Philippine government arrest the killers and bring them to court. They can put pressure on their own governments that fund the Philippine military and police and ask the Philippine government to do something about impunity. Assistance for the families of the murdered journalists, who are often the sole breadwinners of their families, can also help.
Could a journalist be trained to avoid such incidents? if so, how and what sort of training they would they need?
For more information on Coronel, click here.