Impunity led to massacre of reporters
On 23 November 2009 - a date to be remembered by journalists all over the world - 32 media professionals and their traveling companions were murdered by a local Filipino militia. Some of the bodies were also mutilated.
The media professionals were traveling together with 25 other civilians on their way to register a candidate for the May 2010 election for governor of Maguindanao, a province at the southern end of the Philippines archipelago, when they were overtaken by the militia and killed.
This horrible mass murder of journalists was not an isolated event. Rather it was the fruit of a deeply rooted culture of impunity that has grown stronger year by year. Philippine journalists fear more blood will be shed in the upcoming general and local elections in May.
Journalism is a genuinely dangerous profession in the Philippines. At least 136 journalists have been killed there just since 1986.
The Maguindanao massacre garnered some headlines and prompted a handful of demonstrations around the world. Still, the tragedy has not caused any significant outcry among civil leaders in societies around the world. Why?
Some answers can be found in the prevailing understanding of the Philippines, a country with a long tradition of lacking real justice.
A culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish in the society. Since the overthrow of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, some 104 journalists had been killed, prior to the attack on 23 November 2009. Of these, at least 68 have been killed during the nine-year long administration of president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Yet, there have only been four successful prosecutions in just two cases.
A culture of impunity
A key government figure, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita simply told the reporters that the central government “does not have full control of the situation on the ground, mortals as we are.” However, one needs to ask if the government actually wants to control various warlords and local militia groups, some of which the government might have armed in the past.
Since president Arroyo came to power in 2001, “some 1,100 men, women and even children have been summarily killed (the exquisitely ironic Philippine term for it is “salvaged”), 204 forcibly disappeared, another 1,000 tortured, and nearly 2,000 illegally arrested. Scores of others have been the victims of various forms of human rights violations by the police, the military, state-sponsored military groups, the private security guards of plantations and haciendas, and –oh yes – the warlord armies that infest this archipelago of tears, says Luis V. Teodoro, the editor of Philippine Journalism Review Reports.
He points out that the Ampatuans has become the most affluent clan in the second poorest province in the Philippines because the regime needed them during the 2004 and 2007 elections, and will continue to need them in future ones.
It also needs them to keep the Moro separatists at bay and to see to it that the poverty they preside over doesn’t morph into further rebellion, says Teodoro.
Only political rivalry?