On Dec. 19, Larry Que, the publisher of Catanduanes News Now, became the fourth journalist to die in the Philippines in 2016 when he was shot in the head by a lone gunman as he was about to enter the building that houses his office.
While any journalist’s murder is ominous, Que’s murder is doubly so because he appears to have been a peripheral victim of President Rodrigo Durterte’s “war on drugs,” which has metastasized into a war mostly on poor drug users while well-to-do ones remain insulated. He was killed after he wrote a column criticizing what he called the negligence of local officials in allowing a shabu (methamphetamine) laboratory in the island province until they were forced by events to bust it.
Each year, Asia Sentinel totals up the number of journalists who die across the world as a result of simply practicing a profession where printing the truth is a hazard. Life is difficult in the Philippines, where at least 77 have been killed since 1992 – 33 of them in a horrific massacre in Mindanao on Nov. 23, 2009. Seven years later, there have been no convictions. Besides Que, Romeo Olea, Gerardo Ortega and Dennis Cuesta also died this year.
But it is difficult in far too many other countries. The number killed for doing their job globally remains unacceptably high. Reporters Without Borders recorded 74 professional and nonprofessional journalists in connection with their work, some while out reporting, most clearly deliberately targeted. It is a grim reminder that while in the United States and other prosperous countries people are questioning whether news is fake, for far too many there is nothing fake about being killed for seeking to bring truth to readers and viewers.
The Committee to Protect Journalists catalogs 48, with a long list of deaths whose motive is unconfirmed, including Que’s. (Totals compiled by the two major journalism organizations, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists vary widely because they use different criteria on whether the dead were killed in connection with their work.)
Both organizations recorded fewer deaths than in 2015. But as RSF points out, ““””the fall is not encouraging because it is due largely to the fact many journalists have fled countries that became too dangerous, especially Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Burundi. These exoduses have created news and information black holes where impunity reigns.”
The Middle East, with a host of unstable governments where borders and allegiances change constantly, is a primary graveyard for journalists. Syria, where an internecine civil war has raged for five years, remains the most dangerous place on the planet for journalists, with 14 journalists – all of them local freelancers or from news organizations in the Middle East. According to RSF, six each died in Iraq and Yemen with another four in Afghanistan, three each in Libya and Somalia.
In Asia, India remains a traditional killing ground. Six died in 2016 according to Asia Sentinel correspondent Nava Thakuria, who reported that “As 2016 rolls on to the final hours, India stands as one of the worst places for working journalists. The largest democracy in the globe witnessed the murder of six journalists till the middle of December after five were killed in 2015. Nobody has been convicted in most of the journo-murder cases. The Indian media fraternity has demanded a national action plan to ensure security and justice to media persons.” So far, however, there has been no justice and no one has answered for their deaths.
Press freedom has faced chilling incidents in Bangladesh, where militant groups have repeatedly targeted Bangladeshi journalists, bloggers, and publishers in recent years, slashing them with machetes. On April 25, Xulhaz Mannan, a senior editor at the gay rights magazine Roopbaan, and a friend were stabbed to death in Mannan's Dhaka home, CPJ reported at the time. That attack followed the murders of four secular bloggers and a publisher by violent Islamist groups in 2015, according to CPJ research.
In the Philippines, at least two other journalists have been wounded or otherwise injured in in incidents that the National Union of Journalists has tied to Duterte’s drug campaign.
“It has not helped that Duterte, who has shown a total aversion to criticism, and some of his officials have time and again been openly hostile towards journalists and the media as a whole, with his loyal supporters taking up the cue and heaping insults, curses and even threats through social media on several of our colleagues,” the NUJP said in a prepared statement.
The NUJP is calling on the administration “to walk the talk” and prove its professed respect for press freedom “by ending its penchant of falsely blaming media for deliberately misinterpreting its often inconsistent and incoherent messages and instead working on making its communications crystal-clear.”
Que’s murder came after the Reporters Without Borders in its annual round-up showed high concern over the continued killings of journalists around the world.