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Philippine journalists 'live in danger'

By Vaudine England
BBC News

Hernani Pastoleno, killed in Mindanao Feb 07
Some 63 journalists have been killed in the Philippines in eight years

Another report on local corruption or the conduct of a war, another dead journalist in the Philippines.

Family members, friends and witnesses flee for safety; no one dares to testify about what they saw - perhaps a motorbike licence plate and a glimpse of the men who shot the journalist in the head.

Local prosecutors are too close to the warlords or army commanders and decline to pursue the case.

And so the toll rises: 63 dead journalists in the past eight years.

It sounds like a military-run state, where rights are routinely suppressed and no laws exist to guarantee democratic freedoms.

But this is the Philippines, where press freedom is often touted as a crowning achievement of the democracy brought about by the "people power" uprising which overthrew the autocratic Marcos regime 23 years ago.

Deadly freedom

Julie Alipala, Zamboanga correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, remembers when, in September 2007, four military intelligence men appeared at her local shopping centre and started playing with her six-year-old son.

"They said I had to tell them the source of my stories [about high death tolls among the marines] or they would not give me my son back," she recalled.

It's so ironic, it's one of the freest media in the region but it's also probably the area that's most deadly for journalists
Malou Mangahas
Southeast Asian Press Alliance

"I started making a noise and there were people around so they let him go and I then reported the threats. I was told to avoid going out," she said.

Loreto "Lhoy" Rosario, a radio reporter in Cotabato City, has been threatened twice.

The most recent occasion came in November 2008 after he reported that a fire at an ammunition dump was arson, not an accident.

He says an army colonel told him: "Rosario, be careful, we know your movements, your days are numbered."

Mr Rosario said the colonel later apologised to him.

Al Jacinto, editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Examiner, based in Zamboanga City, said he was intimidated last August after his stories angered the city council.

Local officials refused to license his newspaper and felt entitled to "investigate his role".

"I cannot fight them, I can only be a messenger for the truth - but the truth can really hurt," he said.

Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and a trustee of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said the situation in the Philippines was deeply ironic.

"It's one of the freest media in the region but it's also probably the area that's most deadly for journalists," she said.

The death toll for journalists is part of a wider pattern of killings - of activists, leftist organisers and others in the many complex conflicts across the Philippines.

'Cycle of violence'

The latest victim of the killing spree is Badrodin Abbas, shot dead on 21 January in Cotabato City.

Journalists at rally with doves, Manila, Feb 07
Filipino journalists are campaigning for an end to the murders

Like many of the 63 journalists killed during the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, Abbas worked for local radio and had a reputation for strong commentary on Muslim and military issues.

Police say they will investigate, but have already offered the theory that he was mistaken for his brother who is alleged to be involved in a love triangle.

"We are concerned that Badrodin Abbas' murder may be a continuation of the cycle of violence against journalists," said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"The culture of impunity that has left Philippine journalists vulnerable to attack will not be broken until authorities bring those responsible for past killings to justice," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia programme co-ordinator.

According to the PCIJ's Malou Mangahas, there are many reasons why the killings continue.

Every man and woman in our country is entitled to speak, free from fear that they will pay for their beliefs with their very lives
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
Philippine President

"Weak rule of law, an effete justice system, poor police investigation," she says.

"There's terror... directed at the witnesses and the survivors, inadequate funds to prosecute, there's indifference, denial and token action by the authorities, and not enough public outrage."

She blames a breakdown in democratic institutions.

Several international media watchdogs consistently place the Philippines among the top five most deadly places in the world to be a journalist.

There was a brief flurry of action two years ago after a UN report highlighted the deadly trend.

"Democracy in the Philippines will not stand for senseless political killings," President Arroyo said in 2006.

"Every man and woman in our country is entitled to speak, free from fear that they will pay for their beliefs with their very lives."

But according to Ms Mangahas, little has changed since then.

"At the very least we think, in the independent media community, it's negligence on [Mrs Arroyo's] part," she says.

"Turning a blind eye? Yes... she has to be friends with the military and generals for her tenure."

Injustice denied

Ricardo Blancaflor, under-secretary for justice, told the BBC that his taskforce is monitoring 40 cases of media killings, and is acting on four killings from last year.

Leftists' protest against extra judicial killings Aug 06
Journalists' murders are not the only ones to go unpunished in the Philippines

Three of those are now in the courts, and involved the arrest of policemen.

"We dispute the media groups' figures. We have got the trust of witnesses. We wish the media groups would sit down with us and discuss this openly," Mr Blancaflor said.

Rights activists insist inconsistency on the government's part hurts efforts to solve other extra-judicial killings.

But all sides are agreed on the murkiness behind the frequent, sudden deaths.

Perpetrators "include policemen and soldiers and paramilitary forces trained by the military, private goons of local officials, rebels and vigilante groups, combatants in areas of conflict and even private and personal enemies of the journalists," Ms Mangahas said.

And she concedes that it is sometimes hard to distinguish who are observers and who are participants in the murky conflicts over land, resources, and ideology that persist across the archipelago.

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