A brutal episode in the Philippines has put violence against journalists in headlines across the world. According to press reports, a convoy of supporters for gubernatorial candidate Ismael “Toto” Mangudadatu was abducted Monday while on the way to file nomination papers for upcoming elections in Maguindanao province. Authorities soon discovered their bodies, many of them in shallow mass graves. At least 46 victims have been recovered, including 12 journalists; the massacre has been described as among the deadliest single episodes for journalists anywhere in the world.
CJR assistant editor Greg Marx spoke Tuesday to Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Project Journalists, about the broader culture of political violence in the Philippines and the risks posed to journalists. An edited and condensed transcript appears below. For a more detailed look at CPJ’s response, visit the organization’s Web site.
Greg Marx: It’s still a bit of a fluid situation. What do we know about what happened, and what has the initial response been like?
Bob Dietz: What we know is changing all the time, especially in terms of numbers of people killed, who they were, number of journalists involved—there were lawyers as well, and family members [of the candidate], and other political supporters. To try to come to grips with this situation, you have to put it in the context of a culture of political violence in the Philippines. This wasn’t an attack directed against journalists, although they were certainly killed, but rather a sort of local political battle that went extremely off the rails.
When we look at the government’s response so far, they’ve said all the right things: they’ve promised a full investigation, [said] this will not go unpunished, they’ve declared a state of emergency. But one of the things that jumped to our mind immediately was that in declaring a state of emergency, the government will restrict movement of reporters to the area, which is absolutely unacceptable. This thing has to be reported completely and fully by journalists, as well as by whatever investigative teams the government’s going to throw at it.
Clearly it’s going to deserve an investigation that will transcend what the local police or local courts can do, and the central government will have to get involved very fully. Having said that, it might even be worth considering, although I don’t know that we’re calling for it at this point, having some sort of internationally-based investigation, just to make sure it doesn’t go by the wayside.
One of the Philippines’ greatest problems is that, at least in terms of the deaths of journalists, there’s an incredibly high degree of impunity. According to our research, the Philippines ranks sixth-worst in the world in terms of bringing to justice people who kill journalists. We’ve harped on it and hit them so hard over the years that recently they’ve been trying to make some improvements—there were two or three cases in which prosecutions had actually started.
But the reality is that much of the Philippines is insecure. Despite being a democracy for almost 60 years now, in the countryside there’s very little justice brought to bear in many of these cases. This applies not only to the deaths of journalists, but to the general population as well.
GM: Are there situations in which journalists in particular are targeted?
BD: In this specific case, I think you can say clearly they were caught up in that broader context of general political violence. In many of the other cases, the people who are killed are local reporters covering local stories—very often, they’re radio personalities kind of firing from the hip on air, maybe representing the viewpoint of someone who didn’t win the local mayoral election, trying to denounce or reveal corruption in the current mayor’s government. And increasingly, those people—who we treat as journalists—are seen as part of that political problem, and seen in that larger political context. Very often we have a hard time winnowing out why a journalist was killed: Was it because of their work as a journalist, or was it because they were involved in some other issues peripheral to their journalism?
We see this kind of confluence of politics and journalism as a political reality; that’s part of the way the country works. Newspapers and radio stations are very often politically tied or are working for some sort of political agenda, and that’s where the violence comes from.
GM: Is there reason to believe in this case that the journalists who were in this caravan were supporters of this candidate?