[EDITORIAL] The ‘middle’ is a deadly place for journalists

In the Philippines, the intersection of politics and journalism is a precarious place marked by bullets, blood stains and a mass graveyard for media workers who died in the pursuit of truth and information.

As if the job of the media is not already hard enough with all the disinformation and bureaucracy hounding the industry, journalists must also now brave the line of fire between opposing parties and dodge bullets to stay alive.

On this day 14 years ago, 32 media workers were supposed to cover an election-related story before falling victim to the political ambitions of the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao.

Due to the dynasty’s greed and extreme desire for power, a total of 58 people had to be killed and silenced. It is clear from this gruesome event that media killings are intertwined with the culture of guns, goons and gold deeply embedded in the fabric of Philippine politics.

Where there is political and societal turmoil, journalists and civilians alike are always bound to become casualties.

But, to view the issue at hand as a product of mere political rivalries would allow the state to escape liability for enabling these killings and their recurrences.

While most of the suspects and masterminds of the Ampatuan massacre were already convicted after a decade-long legal battle, the administrations starting from former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo remain unaccountable for their inaction.

Under Arroyo’s nine-year term alone, a total of 103 journalists were killed — the highest press death count since the fall of the Martial Law regime.

And lest we forget, Arroyo was also a political ally of the Ampatuans, accused of supplying the clan with firearms and military aid. So not only did most killings happen under her watch, but she was also complicit in legitimizing them.

Despite a change of leadership in 2010, however, the administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III essentially saw a repeat of the slaughter as exactly 32 journalists were reportedly killed in the entirety of his term.

This is the illusion staring at our faces now. There may have been no one-time massacre of media workers that occurred again, but a large number of journalists are still being killed over long stretches of time.

The killings never stopped. It only slowed down, prolonging the disturbance and agony.

We continue counting the deaths to let the state know that we are watching, but we should not let the numbers desensitize us into accepting these absurdities as normal.

These are not just mere numbers or statistics. Each figure in the tally represents a family left behind, a dismantled set of human rights and a stolen future.

When Rodrigo Duterte took reign, 23 journalists perished to decorate his antagonistic tirades against the press. His brutal drug war not only endangered the lives of beat reporters but also cultivated a culture of impunity that emboldened killers to commit crimes, knowing they could get away with anything.

Even if the state continues to deny direct involvement in these persistent attacks, the continuous discrediting of the press has certainly promoted harmful attitudes against journalists.

We continue to suffer the consequences of this demise as four radio broadcasters have already been killed more than a year since the dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., became president.

What’s worse, most of them were killed in public places and even during a live radio program, proving that criminals have become too comfortable attacking members of the press.

This is contrary to veteran journalist Maria Ressa’s assertion that we have seen a “lifting of fear” among journalists under the Marcos Jr. administration. In what way is the fear being lifted when the onslaught against media workers and press freedom continues to worsen? 

The recent killings are clear proof that we will never be safe from an administration that has a fascist disposition.

In the four incidents, Marcos Jr. has only issued watered-down condemnation statements without proactively institutionalizing measures to prevent the killings from happening.

The lack of a sense of urgency from the national government is appalling. After a week or so, when public outrage on the killings subsides, they will simply sweep the issue under the rug, creating a vicious cycle of pretentious condemnation and letting the killers run free.

Ever since the Marcos family fled the country in 1986, a total of 199 journalists have been killed, putting into question the promise of democracy after the downfall of the dictatorship.

The Philippines continues to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists, ranking 8th in the 2023 Global Impunity Index among countries where the killers of journalists are left unprosecuted. 

A genuine democratic country will have stronger legislation on gun control and the safety of journalists. It will have a functional justice system that will not take a decade to hold perpetrators accountable for such brazen attacks.

While we welcome the long-overdue guilty verdict against the Ampatuans and their accessories, the fight is still not over as some convicts continue to appeal their cases, and the court is yet to recognize photojournalist Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay as a legitimate victim of the killings just because his body was never found. 

There is a need for the government to address this now as the chilling effect of such normalized impunity has already seeped into the minds and hearts of aspiring journalists. The problem has gone out of hand to the point that it has started to stain the dreams of young people.

But no amount of fear could ever stop a strong line of media practitioners calling for change. We owe it to our fallen friends in the media to not let their deaths go in vain.

It is indeed deadly to stand in the middle of conflicting parties. However, neutrality on these pressing issues is just as deadly for one’s self and even other journalists.

As we commemorate the lives of the 32 media workers who were killed in Maguindanao, we must be reminded that we persist both for those who perished in the past and for those who want to change the future.