Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Death and Impunity in Philippine Journalism

A Mindanao city becomes the world’s journalist murder capital

General Santos City, at the very bottom of southern Mindanao, is becoming the journalist murder capital of the Philippines, and perhaps the world.

Christopher Guarin, the publisher of a local community newspaper and radio commentator was the latest to die, on Jan. 5 when he was shot six times by a gunman riding in tandem on a motorcycle that pulled up beside his car and opened fire.

Guarin tried to drive away as the gunman kept shooting. Eventually he stopped the car and got out, begging for his life as the two gunmen kept shooting. His wife, Lyn, who was riding in the car with him along with the couple’s nine-year-old daughter, told local media that “I could not count the number of shots made by the suspects. But I saw my husband lying on the ground helpless, pleading before the suspects not to kill him. His pleading fell on deaf ears."

A statement from the media support group Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists said Guarin's death is "one more indication of the persistence of the culture of impunity that encourages the killing of journalists and media workers in the Philippines."

Guarin himself was questioned by police in connection with the murder of the circulation manager of a rival tabloid, the Brigada News, two months earlier. The circulation manager, Alfredo Velarde, was driving to collect the day’s edition when a gunman appeared behind his car and shot him dead. Guarin’s wife, however, said he was cleared of any involvement in the Velarde killing.

The publisher of Tatak Bigtime News, one of five print dailies and a radio commentator in General Santos City, population 675,000, Guerin was the 10th media personality to be slain in the city since 1986 – not counting 14 journalists and media workers who were among the 33 who were killed in Maguindanao Province in November 2009 in a slaughter allegedly ordered by warlord Andal Ampatuan Junior, who is currently on trial in Manila for the murders in a trial that observers say could take a decade given the slow progress of Philippine justice.

The country ranks third on the Committee to Protect Journalists' global Impunity Index, a quantitative measure of the number of journalists killed for their work without justice worldwide. At least two Filipino journalists were shot and killed in relation to their work in 2011, according to research by the committee. Both were local radio announcers. CPJ is investigating the murders of three other journalists last year, but it is not clear if their deaths were related to their work as journalists. All three were local radio announcers as well.

Guarin was the first journalist killed in 2012 in the Philippines. He probably won’t be the last. A total of 72 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992 although local media groups say the total is much higher, with 150 reporters killed in the country since 1986.

"The murder of journalist Christopher Guarin speaks to the Benigno Aquino government's growing failure to protect journalists and live up to its reform rhetoric," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's Southeast Asia Representative. "How many journalists must be killed with impunity before Aquino's government takes seriously and acts decisively against the threat faced by all journalists across the Philippines?"

While authorities have not yet determined a motive behind the killing, CPJ said Guarin had received anonymous death threats by text message before his murder, according to his wife and work colleagues quoted in local press reports. Hours before his murder he read on air one of the text-message threats, which warned him against leaving the radio station where he anchored a "block-time" radio program or risk being killed, according to Freddie Solinap, a manager at Tatak News.

Guarin's death is typical of many killings of journalists in the Philippines, according to CPJ. Block-timing is a practice in which a broadcaster leases air time from a radio station and is responsible for bringing in advertising money to cover the program's expenses. A number of block-time commentators, many with affiliations to local politicians, have been killed in the Philippines, according to CPJ research. Very often the killings come at the hands of assailants on motorcycles.

So far three journalists from the defunct RGMA Super Radyo, including Guarin, have been murdered. In 2004, Super Radyo reporter Jonathan Abayon was shot and killed moments after leaving the house of then rising boxing star Manny Pacquiao. A former Pacquiao bodyguard and suspect remains at large. In 2009, Neneng Montaño was among those killed in the Ampatuan Massacre. Montaño was sales account executive and a Super Radyo part-time reporter.

Local journalists have raised a reward for the arrest of the mastermind behind Guarin’s killing, rising to more than P88,000 (US$2,000) following an additional P20,000 donation from a concerned citizen who declined to be identified. A prominent personality, who also requested anonymity, earlier pledged P50,000 for the arrest of Guarin’s killer and those behind the attack. The amount is expected to rise as more pledges are being made. Asia Sentinel

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