In 2009, more than 30 journalists accompanied a local politician’s wife as she went to submit his name for the ballot. The incumbent and his armed gangs had made it clear that opposition wouldn’t be tolerated, but the would-be candidate thought no one would dare mess with his wife. He was wrong. En route to the station, the entire party, over 50 people in all, was ambushed and killed by gunmen in what is now known as the Ampatuan massacre — the single deadliest event for journalists worldwide.
This horrific event didn’t happen in Syria or Afghanistan. Nope, it occurred in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the third-deadliest place in the world to be a journalist, behind Iraq and Syria.
According to rankings by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 77 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1992, compared with Iraq’s 174 and Syria’s 94. That number also puts it ahead of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. When you look past the island nation’s white sand beaches, you’ll find a country awash with guns and a vast network of death squads and hired guns. Toss in a president-elect who has boasted of killing “around three people” himself and who wants to up the ante on murdering “criminals,” and you have a deadly combination for journalists. Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, cites the country’s “ongoing vicious, decades-long insurgencies” and a wider problem of “riding-in-tandem” killings. In these drive-by murders, one guy operates the motorcycle and the other is the triggerman. Kine says such murders happen almost daily.
Challenging the status quo is risky, and there are “huge economic implications behind the violence,” says Brian Hanley, regional director for Asia at Internews. You’ve got drug transshipment centers, timber and mining interests and a vast network of more than 7,000 islands ruled by powerful, wealthy families with links to contraband. These families operate with the support of well-funded private militias that deal with rivals ruthlessly.
A group of journalists receive firearms training at a military camp in Manila.
While there has been a marginal decline in such murders, impunity reigns. The Philippines ranks fourth on CPJ’s 2015 Impunity Index, and is the only country among the list’s top five that isn’t an active war zone. Not a single person has been brought to justice for Ampatuan. And according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, only 14 of 172 journalist murders have ended in conviction since 1986. Often, says Kine, those charged with investigating the crimes are those responsible for committing them, which sends a pretty clear message to would-be journalist-killers: It’s doable. The U.S. is hesitant to push for major reforms since the Philippines is a strategic partner in countering China’s advances in the South China Sea and is seen as an ally in the war on terror.
Yet somehow the Philippines has a thriving civil society, a strong press and quite a “raucous democracy,” says Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “It’s in the DNA of journalists to challenge the status quo relentlessly,” says Kine. After all, the media played a crucial role in overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship in 1989. That pride has sustained a thriving journalistic culture that is, in many respects, “one of the freest, most liberal media in all of Asia,” Crispin says. But the “double edge” is that with that liberalization just about anyone can buy time on the radio and say whatever they want, creating what is known as the “block time” phenomenon. Those militias mentioned earlier? They hire journalists as mouthpieces. Rival groups then target those reporters.
It’s important to note that the number of journalists killed is defined differently by different groups, depending on whether an organization includes camerapeople and whether the motive has been confirmed. CPJ’s figures, Crispin says, are quite conservative. Yet the Philippines still takes the bronze … in journalist deaths.