Image courtesy of nujp.org
Image courtesy of nujp.org

MANILA, Philippines-Rights and media groups continue to assail Pres. Benigno Aquino III for his apparent “apathy and alibis” in solving media killings in the country.

In his media interview with Filipino journalists in Tokyo, Japan, Aquino downplayed the increasing number of media getting murdered, saying it is not a “national catastrophe.”

“…Correlation’ must first be established: ‘What’s common among (the killings) besides (the reality) that somehow they are connected to media’…Now if you don’t identify the problem correctly, you will not come up with a solution. The point is … we are 95 million Filipinos. It’s difficult to see the intent, especially for those … some might really be wanton and merciless and totally wrong,” Aquino reportedly told Filipino media delegates during his visit in Japan last week.

In reaction, Carlos Conde of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that “Aquino can spin ‪‎media killing all he wants. Fact remains killings surged under his watch, hardly any arrests, no mastermind in jail.”

“The Aquino administration needs to declare that the attacks on journalists are a national catastrophe that threatens fundamental liberties. The police should give priority to investigations of journalist killings and look beyond the gunmen to the individuals ultimately responsible.”

“They should probe threats against journalists to prevent and deter future attacks. The government also needs to work with media companies, particularly broadcast networks, on strategies to better protect journalists.  It’s time for the Philippine government to intervene in the war on the press rather than ignore it,” Conde also said in an earlier statement.

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reacted on Aquino’s statement saying that what the latter said “says much when the president of a country that time and again boasts of being a democracy insists that one of, if not the, worst wave of media murders does not constitute a national catastrophe.”

“No, we don’t believe President Benigno Aquino III is in a state of denial about the three latest killings, which happened in all of two weeks’ time, bringing the death toll for media since he came to office in 2010 to at least 21,” said NUJP chairwoman Rowena Paraan in a statement released Sunday.

According to Paraan, they believe that Aquino is “clearly aware of how serious the problem is.”

“The problem is, he keeps on looking for excuses to play down what the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has called the worst annual incidence rate under any president. In short, he just doesn’t care.”

Evidently, Mr. Aquino has not been listening, if he ever did in the first place, Paraan added.

According to NUJP, they “have never claimed the murders of our colleagues were the result of any ‘established policy’ unlike, say, the extrajudicial killings of activists, environmentalists, indigenous people and other dissenters that human rights experts both here and abroad have rightly linked to a murderous counterinsurgency program that deliberately targets members of legal organizations.”

“What we have said is that these killings are the inevitable offshoot of governance by expediency, which has seen administration after administration, bar none, allowing the corrupt, the warlords, the crime lords to reign supreme in their respective personal fiefdoms in the regions and provinces in exchange for their support.”

Paraan added that “it is a system of governance that has allowed local tyrants to keep their populations cowed and silence any attempt to unmask them while the national government turns a blind eye for fear of losing their loyalty.”

“But of course, no self-respecting president, especially one who has staked his name on ‘tuwid na daan (right path)’ would ever admit to that,” Paraan said.

Paraan said “ the search for alibis, like Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma’s describing some of the victims as ‘not legitimate’ to justify describing the problem as ‘not so serious,’ or the attempt by an investigator to explain the recent killings as the offshoot of the victims’ less than impeccable ethics.”

“Admittedly, Philippine media have their work cut out to improving ethical and professional standards. But before sanctimoniously dumping the blame on the individual practitioner, especially the grossly overworked and underpaid variety that populate our provinces, shouldn’t we look first to those who keep them so overworked and underpaid that not a few succumb to the blandishments of those would have the news slanted in their favor?”

“And if corruption were to justify murder, shouldn’t we be wondering, given the surfeit of evidence, why our corridors of power continue to be populated by the foremost purveyors of graft and who, by all indications, are the most likely brains in the murders of our colleagues? So there, Mr. Aquino, is the ‘correlation’ you claim to seek, the problem identified to which you must now find a solution. That is, if you even care a whit to,” Paraan questioned Aquino.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a network of independent media organizations in the region, said that “complacency, disinterest, default…define the attitude and conduct toward media killings of the Aquino administration.”

SEAPA added “ the government has been unrelenting in its criticism of the supposed ‘negativism’ of journalists but remains silent over the passage of the Freedom of Information bill.”

In a statement posted by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on its website , SEAPA called out the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III over the unyielding tide of media murders, including three in a series that occurred in recent weeks.

PCIJ is a founding member of SEAPA altogether with the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Thai Journalists Association, the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia, the Institute for the Studies of the Free Flow of Information of Indonesia, and the Center for Independent Journalism of Malaysia, accordingly.

“In no other country is the phrase ‘culture of impunity’ better demonstrated, and its consistency of targeting members of the media community seriously erodes the Philippine press’s reputation of being among the freest in the region,” said SEAPA.

“The Philippine government has effectively defaulted on its duty to protect the free press and freedom of opinion and expression with the unabated killings, and a low proportion of ‘solved’ cases (less than 10 percent), with no mastermind ever convicted.”

“Still, government’s complacency over media killings reflects its low appreciation of the role of media in Philippine society. In addition to lack of decisive action on media killings, public officials, up to the President, routinely gripe about negative reporting in the media,” SEAPA added.

According to SEAPA “policy-wise, the President and his party has also withheld endorsement of the Freedom of Information bill that has floundered in Congress — depriving civil society and the media of a potent tool to exact accountability of public officials.”

“With three new killings of journalists, the Philippine government has utterly failed in its duty to protect journalists.”

The media said they “refuse to accept that unabated killings and a culture of impunity should be a terrible price paid for press freedom.”

“It will take a long process before the culture of impunity is finally erased from the political landscape. Beyond knee-jerk condemnation statements, government must move towards more tangible steps to address the culture of impunity.”

According to the group, media murders undermine the special role of media in fulfilling the right to freedom of opinion and expression as a platform to channel public opinion and to access information that must be kept free from interference and safe from attack.

“Because of impunity, the reputation of the Philippines for press freedom is dubious for threats to physical safety effectively put a gag on free reporting.”

The Aquino administration must send a clear message that killings will no longer be tolerated and that those responsible must face the full weight of the law, urged SEAPA.

New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked the Philippines as the third worst in its “impunity index” of countries that fail to solve crimes against mediamen.

At least 72 journalists had been murdered since 1992, the group said.

Philippine media suffered a deadly blow when in 2009, 32 journalists were summarily murdered by a political warlord in Mindanao.

Also three journalists were additionally killed in the same area from November 29 to December 6 this year, namely,  Joas Dignos, Michael Melo, and Rogelio Butalid.