Murder and the Press

Southeast Asia has unfortunately earned a reputation for not being a safe place for journalists. The threats? Take a number. They range from imprisonment for crimes in outdated libel and slander laws, detention without trial, violence against media personnel, and impunity in the killing of journalists.

It's no coincidence that journalists who face risks are those whose stories have exposed weaknesses in the governance structures, lopsided distribution of resources, and the absence of accountability and transparency. These weaknesses affect the ability of citizens to enjoy all other fundamental rights, such as rights to life, housing, public health, education, and livelihood, among others.

Typical advice given to journalists is that there is no story worth risking one's life. But lives have been lost in the course of journalists doing their jobs. Only a small portion of the murders have seen the light of day in the courts because of the extent to which the culture of impunity has taken root.

Impunity is when the perpetrators of killings, be that of journalists or human rights activists or lawyers, are not investigated or brought to justice. That violence and impunity are staking a claim in peaceful democracies should make us jump out of our seats and stop them at their tracks here and now.

It's a zero sum game: every unpunished crime means a win for the killer, representing powerful individuals or the state or businesses; and zero for the public, who is now deprived of its right to information. The cold-blooded murder of Marlene Esperat in the Philippines in 2005 is a case in point.

As a member of the local Ombudsman's office and then as a journalist, Esperat was persistent in her fight against corruption, and obviously came too close to the truth. Esperat, who had worked with the Department of Agriculture in Central Mindanao, Philippines, went into journalism and wrote for the local Midland's Review, and had exposed a fertilizer scam and other wrongdoings involving the agriculture department. She was killed in front of her own children while having dinner at home on Mar. 24, 2005. The suspects in the murder admitted they were hired to kill her. The price for the kill was US$3,000.

After six years and a back-and-forth court haggling, finally the masterminds in Esperat's case will face trial. It's still a long way away from closure for her family, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.

Yet, the darkest day in the history of the media is the brutal massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in the Maguindanao province in south Philippines, who were on their way to register a candidacy for an election to take on the politically entrenched Ampatuan clan. They were gunned down by the clan’s paramilitary. To date, two years after the worst incident of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ history, and apparently the biggest slaughter of journalists recorded anywhere, 196 people have been charged. Of these, only 93 including several members of the Ampatuan family, are currently detained and 64 on trial. The trials have been marred by delays, the deaths of witnesses, alleged bribes and threats to the plaintiffs in a bid to have them drop their charges.

Ten more journalists have been killed in the Philippines since the Maguindanao massacre. Others have been threatened, physically assaulted, sued and otherwise harassed. Recently unknown persons burned a Catholic church-owned radio station in Occidental Mindoro.

Nonetheless, the Maguindanao massacre, on Nov. 23, 2009, has forced not only Filipinos but the international community to see the extent to which we have collectively sanctioned crimes against the media. The impact on families and societies lingers years after the crimes have occurred, and deeply entrenches the culture of fear.

But the Philippines is not the only country with the problem of impunity. The conditions that lead to impunity - widespread corruption, a weak judiciary, poorly developed enforcement agencies and weak legal frameworks - exist throughout the region.

In Thailand, two foreign journalists - Hiro Muramoto and Fabio Polenghi - were killed while covering the political conflict in 2010, but those responsible for the deaths have not been prosecuted. Cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killing of human rights lawyers, environmentalists and labor activists point to a bigger problem in Thailand with the inability or lack of political will of the state and its enforcement agencies in bringing criminals to justice. In Indonesia, three journalists murdered in 2010 were believed to have died in the hand of government officials. The cases remain unsolved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The solution to the threat of impunity does not lie solely with governments and politics, although much is in their hands. Media owners are as much responsible for the safety of their staff as much as the individual journalists themselves. Above all, the fight to end impunity is a fight of the people who must hold their governments accountable and demand for justice in these heinous crimes.

(Gayathry Venkiteswaran is Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) (www.seapa.org). The 23 November International Day to End Impunity is a global campaign organized for the first time this year. It marks the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. More information can be found here: http://daytoendimpunity.org/)