Philippines: Most dangerous place for journalists

by Robert Gonzaga, Central Luzon Desk, Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The killing of 57 civilians and media people last year made the Philippines “the most dangerous place in the world for journalists,” said Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

La Rue spoke at the Journalism Asia Forum 2010 at the Manila Hotel Tuesday, the first anniversary of the so-called Maguindanao massacre that included 32 journalists.

The forum, organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa), was attended by about 100 journalists from Asia and representatives from the United Nations, Philippine National Police, Department of Justice and international human rights groups.

A Guatemalan, La Rue has worked on human rights cases for the past 25 years. He brought the first genocide case against the military dictatorship in his country.

La Rue said that countries experiencing a significant number of killings and harassment of their media workers “should first acknowledge that there is a problem” before the UN can step in to extend help.

Weak justice system

Rue said events like the Maguindanao massacre could be attributed to a weak justice system, negligence by the state to investigate and prosecute people behind such crimes, and an active policy of suppression and censorship.

But Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III disagreed with La Rue’s view that the Philippines was the most dangerous place for media workers.

“The Maguindanao massacre is the deadliest attack on the media, but most definitely the Philippines is not a killing field for journalists. Iraq is number one,” Baraan, who also spoke at the forum, told the Inquirer.

A check with the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ impunity index placed Iraq and Somalia on the top two spots, respectively, with the Philippines coming in third.

Baraan, however, said La Rue’s observations on the Philippines’ justice system were generally accurate. He said that the Department of Justice should be actively involved in crime investigations.

“We are very interested in sitting down with Mr. La Rue and obtaining the UN’s assistance,” he said, especially in the technical aspects of crime fighting and training of investigators.

Unsolved murders

Nestor Burgos, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said the country ranked high among the most dangerous places for media workers even before the massacre in Maguindanao.

He said of the 143 murder cases of media workers that the NUJP had recorded since 1986, there had only been seven convictions.

Jose Manuel Diokno, chair of Free Legal Assistance Group, said filing suits was “not enough” to end impunity or the failure of the state to punish perpetrators of violence and human rights violations.

Diokno said Congress should craft a law and the Supreme Court should amend the rules of court to enforce a mechanism for preserving the testimony of witnesses.

With public prosecutors either bribed or intimidated and the courts and the Office of the Ombudsman “notoriously slow” in processing cases, Diokno said witnesses were unable to do their duty to testify. With a report from Tonette Orejas, Inquirer Central Luzon

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