[EDITORIAL] Elections, the impunity theater

A once-in-a-lifetime event is unfolding before our eyes: Filipinos will elect a new set of national leaders amid a raging global pandemic.

For the first time, too, journalists will cover the election amid a destructive virus that has taken the lives of many. The health crisis heralded a new set of challenges for media practitioners who now wear face masks and distance themselves while covering on-ground.

Beyond the virus, however, the media faces a larger foe. Journalists are also defending against a culture of impunity that has snaked its way into the confines of their newsrooms. It is pervasive, powerful and abusive. It attacks ruthlessly but gets away with it.

This election year won’t be the first time journalists will confront impunity in their work. They’ve been masked — albeit unwillingly — even before the pandemic.

Any candidate should know that the media is a deciding factor in their campaign. A political aspirant’s first move is always to swing the media to their side. If you’re a reelectionist, you should start hiding your crimes under the carpet.

This is why the critical press becomes a prime target during the elections. Officials bribe journalists with money or gifts to perfume their names in the papers. Politicians have embellished their weapons of threats and harassment for the journalists they cannot buy. And with social media becoming a new conduit between candidates and voters, officials have spawned massive disinformation that costumes its veracity.

Impunity becomes more potent in the election theater. Journalists have known this to be true for the longest time because they themselves get caught in the crossfire of the electoral war.

The Ampatuan Massacre, dubbed the single deadliest event for journalists in history, opened with Esmael Mangudadatu challenging Andal Ampatuan, Jr. in the gubernatorial race for Maguindanao.

This was big news for the area, as someone was challenging the mighty Ampatuan clan that has long ruled the province. The Ampatuans also had the blessings of then-president Gloria Arroyo who considered the family as important allies.

While the Mangudadatus received threats of violence from the Ampatuans, Esmael’s wife Genalin still headed to Shariff Aguak to file for candidacy on her husband’s behalf. They felt that the pack of journalists following them would deter the looming attack.

But before they could even reach the Commission on Elections office, Genalin and her convoy were met with the dreaded heavy fire. In a text message Genalin sent to Esmael, she confirmed that it was the men of the Ampatuans that shot fire.

This ended with the death of 58 individuals, 32 of whom are media workers. In 2019, a decade later, the Quezon City Regional Trial Court convicted the Ampatuan brothers for the fallen journalists.

READ: Principal accused found guilty in Ampatuan massacre case

The verdict handed out on the Ampatuan massacre case is incomplete. Reynaldo Momay-Castillo, whose body was not found at the crime scene, still awaits justice as the 58th victim.

“Until now, it’s really hard for me to recover kasi I never [expected] na hindi maisama yung tatay ko,” Reynafe Castillo, Reynaldo’s daughter, told TNP. “I fought for, like, 3 years bago naipasok ‘yung pangalan niya. Then, all of a sudden, sasabihin lang nila na wala kaming probable cause dahil walang body.”

Asked for Malacanang’s reaction to the historic 2019 verdict, then Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said President Duterte has yet to speak to him about the matter.

“I don’t know if [Duterte] was already awake at the time [of the verdict] because that is his sleeping time. Last night we were so late again and I noticed he was very tired because past midnight na kami natapos,” he said.

‘Total war’

Duterte himself has a habit of sleeping out in cases of impunity. That is if he isn’t inciting the impunity himself.

It can be remembered that ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media organization, was shut down because of Duterte’s electoral tantrums. 

“‘Yang ABS-CBN, basura ‘yang inano ninyo. Dapat may magsabi sa inyo ngayon, mga p——ina ninyo, sinobrahan ‘nyo ang kalokohan ninyo,” he said in a speech on March 30.

This comes after ABS-CBN aired an advertisement showing then-presidentiable Duterte cursing and uttering a rape remark. It was paid for by vice presidential candidate Antonio Trillanes IV.

Duterte has even attacked ABS-CBN for its oligarchic ownership. But the president himself allows dynastic rule in his government and family.

Read: Balatkayong tagapagligtas

With the allegations of tax evasion and foreign ownership debunked by government offices themselves, there was no legal basis for Duterte’s congress to unplug ABS-CBN’s broadcast. Yet, with Duterte’s hissy fit comes the undoing of thousands of jobs amid a pandemic, the waning of far-reaching news channels and a chilling effect that jolts media practitioners up to today.

All of these irreversible impacts while Duterte and his cronies continue to rule, scot-free.

READ: When the Ship Sank: Aftermath of the ABS-CBN Shutdown

The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) recently found in its internal survey that the average salary range for journalists is from P16,000 to P25,000. The cost of living in the Philippines is nearly P48,000, making it doubly difficult for a working journalist to sustain their basic needs. 

To cut off or to threaten a journalist’s livelihood is to disallow them from creating critical reportage. Duterte knows that this is the secret to silencing his critics. His attacks on the press are deliberate.

If putting media practitioners through poor working conditions isn’t enough, Duterte also enables his state forces to capture, threaten and kill journalists.

The alternative media faced endless cyber attacks and baseless red-tagging that attempted to silence their reportage. Duterte’s administration also imprisoned Frenchiemae Cumpio, Margarita Valle, Lady Ann Salem and many others who simply did their job as journalists. NUJP has recently counted reporter Dondon Dinoy as the 21st death of a journalist under Duterte’s hands.

“Thanks to collusion at all levels within the state apparatus, Duterte has an arsenal that he can use to wage “total war” against journalists,” said international media rights group Reporters Without Borders in July, calling Duterte a “predator since taking office”.

Elections

With so much at stake – not the least of them being the spawns of dictators vying for the country’s top posts – we cannot sit idly by. Media practitioners must stand firm to their principles in combating a culture of impunity intensified by the elections. 

While Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque pretends that press freedom is “alive” and “well”, we know the truth. In fact, the government is the reason many of our colleagues are not alive. They are the reason the press is not well.

As we demand government officials to perform their mandates, we also demand that they look upon the press and heed our demands too. As journalism professor Danilo Arao said, we must “push for press freedom to be an election issue.” 

Inspired by the masses, who themselves stand side-by-side in their march towards victory, media practitioners too must learn to come together in terminating impunity.

While the bounds of our media organizations’ capitalist interests and market competition might deceive us into thinking that we are separate, the problems we face in our daily coverage prove to us that we are more similar than we imagine.

No tyrant can ever come close to separating our unity. There is still much to do. The battle for justice is not yet over.

Now is not the time to merely chronicle this violent history. Now is not the time to feign objectivity and remain neutral. Not when our colleagues perish without reason nor justice. Not when the dictators’ children are seeking higher office. Not when we’ve seen what the state can do to silence the critical press. 

Now and always is the time to use our reportage in our struggle for freedom.

We are not merely deliverers or messengers. We are movers, too.