Five years after the deaths of 32 journalists in the Philippines, Philippa McDonald looks at the state of media safety in that country.
Five years ago, 32 journalists were among 58 people shot dead and buried in mass graves in southern Mindanao – the second largest island in the Philippines – as they covered a local candidate filing election papers. This event on November 23, 2009, which is also known as the Maguindanao or Ampatuan massacre after the province and clan involved, involves one of the largest-ever killings of journalists and makes the Philippines one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as one.
As far as an investigation goes, police, soldiers and members of the powerful local clan are alleged to have participated in the killings. So far, 108 people have been charged but many are still ‘wanted’ and there are, in all, 197 suspects. A trial that started in 2010 has been mired in delays and accusations of bribes.
Despite the promises that those responsible will be brought to justice, even Philippines Justice Secretary Leila de Lima admits, “I am not going to deny there’s no longer a culture of impunity in our country.”
According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), five years on the Philippines government has failed to create a secure environment for journalists, and there have been more journalists killed in the years since the massacre than died on that single day.
Each year, on the anniversary of the massacre, hundreds of journalists and human rights activists stop to remember, and the news media return to the place where a convoy of primarily local journalists were taken 2 kilometres off the highway by gunmen, shot multiple times and ploughed into mass graves by a backhoe already at the site. Several were shot in the back as they tried to run away, and the bodies of news crews who refused to get out of their vans were found shot and crushed in their vehicles.
Veteran Philippines journalist and photographer Nonoy Espina was the first journalist to arrive to cover the massacre.
“All indications are they were executed in groups,” he says. “It was pretty cold-blooded murder. At least two of the victims contacted their families as they were waiting to be killed.”
He and other journalists were confronted by three large pits filled with bodies and cars. “It was like a birthday cake of death,” he says, “vehicles, bodies, just like a layered cake.
“By the end of the day,” he continues, “I thought, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
One young woman journalist who didn’t want to be named, said it was her first big story. “The authorities were starting to excavate them from the ground, from where we are here,” she explains, “Our colleagues, it was heartbreaking … it was my first time to see a massacre like that.
“You had to set aside your emotions and feelings, and all around the families were crying and falling to the ground.
“The challenges of not letting emotions get in the way of impartiality were enormous. The only thing that should be done by journalists here, aside from standing up for what they believe, is to always present a story in balanced way, getting both sides of the story and truthfulness of course.”
But the massacre has left an indelible mark and she still covers the same area where, on that day, almost half of the region’s journalists were killed: “Every time I go out in the field, I coordinate with both sides of politics, the authorities and people I know on the ground,” she explains.
“I do fear when I’m covering critical situations, but there’s always coordination. I’m not armed – I wish I was, but I’m not.”
At the IFJ’s request, an armed escort was promised to accompany a convoy of journalists and families of the murdered journalists to the massacre site on the fifth anniversary of the killing. There were delays and the much-anticipated escort joined the convoy of white mini vans 2 kilometres short of our destination.
The chief of police for the Ampatuan region, Senior Inspector Roland De Leon, told the IFJ delegation that a lot has changed since the massacre: “This area is safe. People here are peace-loving citizens. In general here it is peaceful, that is why we escorted you without guns.”
“But there’s a big gun there…” I politely said, to which the chief of police responded, “It is part of our uniform as police – it is an M16, it is a standard weapon.”
General Santos, where journalist Rose Sioco is a police reporter, is the nearest big city. She covers crime for local radio on a motorbike. “I was assigned to the Coroner’s court where they brought the bodies,” she says. “I had some friends there – Morales and Montano…” She cries.
“It’s very sad for me, but I never said to myself I will stop this job, because this is my profession.
“I think this is a big challenge for me to keep doing my job, to tell the people that we will never stop being journalists. I have challenged myself to keep going and remember them.”
Abbey Lorenzo was 17 when news broke of the massacre. “The mindset of people changed when the Maguindanao massacre happened,” she says. “People said to me, why would you want to be a media practitioner? You will be killed.
“It made me more determined to be a reporter – you are supposed to deliver the news, not be afraid.”
Threats, though, are a part of a journalist’s working life in the Philippines.
Roland Ortillano is a stringer for a local TV station. “I got a threat from the family of someone in jail,” he remembers. “They threatened me, not by texting, but by actually tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You’re too young’.”
While the Maguindanao massacre was the largest mass killing of journalists in the world, the Philippines has been a dangerous place for media workers for decades. Broadcaster Alberto Martinez was shot in the back on April 10, 2005 after he was ambushed by two men on motorcycles after his radio show. Half paralysed and in and out of hospital, Martinez survived for another nine and a half years, living under witness protection and constantly on the move to various ‘safe’ houses.
His 41-year-old wife, Geraldine Martinez, was left to bring up her son and daughter alone, and to travel long distances for occasional visits.
Two men, including a still-serving soldier, were charged with his attempted murder but have been on bail for the past nine years. But for Alberto Martinez, the wait for justice proved too long – he died on January 17 this year, just a week and a half before he was to give evidence in the trial of the men who allegedly shot him.
Less than a month later on February 14, another broadcaster, Maurito Lim, was shot dead. The 71-year-old was renowned for speaking out against the illegal drug trade. And his murder brings the death toll of journalists in the Philippines to 172 since 1986.
Philippa McDonald travelled to the Philippines as part of an IFJ delegation to mark the fifth anniversary of the massacre of 32 journalists at Maguindanao. The mission’s full report can be found here