The scene was all too familiar — two gunmen, a motorbike, multiple gunshot wounds and another slain media worker arriving at a local hospital to be pronounced dead. On the afternoon of Sept. 4, Vergel Bico became the fifth journalist to be murdered in the Philippines in a little over a month.
The Philippines — renowned for pearl-white beaches and smiling affable people — is currently ranked the third worse country on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s impunity index, which calculates the number of media workers murdered in correlation with conviction rates. The nation, despite its rambunctious democracy and one of the freest media landscapes in Asia, is considered by watchdog organizations to be in the same ballpark as war-torn Iraq and Somalia.
“It’s a whole bunch of issues that journalists are facing here. One of them is that they face all kinds of threats from local warlords or drug dealers or even politicians,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher on the Philippines Carlos Conde.
Conde cites a breakdown of law and order and a culture of impunity as other factors that allow those ordering the killings to avoid conviction.
In the Philippines, a disproportionate number of the journalists killed in targeted assaults are radio commentators working in provincial communities, where their reports provide some of the only outspoken opposition to corrupt politicians, powerful warlords and criminal syndicates.
“They’re very, very outspoken sometimes to the point of being shrill,” explains Conde.
“My take on that is people, no matter what they say and how they say it, are being silenced and that’s a reflection of how poorly those in power regard freedom of expression.”
In 2010, Bengino Aquino became the Philippines’ President after vowing, among other things, to fight corruption and take on the forces behind the targeted killings of journalists and activists. However, 20 journalists have been killed during Aquino’s tenure and media professionals are unhappy.
According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), more than 150 journalists have been killed since the ousting of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, while the courts have only succeeded in handing out 10 convictions.
“Those who are being convicted are only the lookout drivers, triggermen, but none of them are the masterminds who ordered the killing or financed the killing,” says NUJP Chairwoman Rowena Paraan. While her organization offers safety awareness courses and assists journalists who’ve been assaulted, Paraan claims little will change until systemic corruption is challenged and the people ordering the hits against journalists are convicted and jailed.
“While it’s not clear that all of the fallen journalists on Aquino’s watch were killed for their reporting, the lack of convictions and even arrests in many of these murders points to a lack of concern and gross inaction at the highest levels of government,” says CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin.