Q&A: Bob Dietz

CPJ's Asia program coordinator on the killings in the Philippines

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?

BD: We’re still trying to winnow them out. We don’t know all the names of the reporters down there. Most of these people wrote for small local papers, maybe one or two radio announcers; there might have been stringers for the larger national papers. Typically, some would write for a newspaper who supported this one particular candidate. Others could be just people covering a news story—it’s the biggest thing going on in their little town, and why not go with this?

The threat of violence is very real. The reason the candidate himself wasn’t along on the ride is because he had been receiving death threats. He sent his wife, figuring no one’s going to kill a woman. So there was a story there, a legitimate story to cover—just the way people might ride in the airplane with a returning dissident to see what happens.

GM: Some media accounts have made reference to an ongoing Muslim insurgency. Is there any reason to think that played a role?

BD: There is that friction and that tension. But I don’t think this particular incident should be laid to that. This was two families, two clans, sort of going head to head about who’s going to get to be governor. It’s an incredibly lucrative position, incredibly politically important, one in which you can wield tremendous amounts of power and amass tremendous amounts of wealth. I don’t want to make light of this, but it’s more like Mafia families fighting over turf. You have to see it in that context of a local power struggle.

GM: What other steps would you like to see the government take over the next couple days or couple weeks?

BD: They’re obviously taking this seriously. President Arroyo hasn’t written this off or turned her back on it. In the Philippines there are accusations that the alleged perpetrator was her political ally, but I don’t think she would pull punches. I think she’s just as horrified by this as everybody else. I think you will see at least an initial aggressive investigative action on the part of the government.

Now what happens three months down the line is the real telling point. When the world has moved on and forgotten about this, what happens when the court system slows things down? Will people be brought to justice here? Will each individual shooter be brought in? Will the masterminds have to pay? Will they be jailed, or will they be free to walk around? All that determines the rest of the world’s response over the next week or two or three.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists, we’re focused on how many of our colleagues were killed, and what it is we can do for their survivors, and what the government’s going to do, and where do we get the funds to help them, and how do we pressure the government. But we also can’t act in a vacuum of the other realities. And we know that what happened was part of a much larger political problem in the Philippines.

GM: Given the way journalism and politics are entwined, are there specific measures that can be put in place to protect journalists?

BD: We hounded the government so hard about this for years. The government set up a special investigative unit to handle assaults specifically on journalists. It barely slowed things down. Investigations need to be carried out with local police, whose security or personal interests might be compromised. You can send down a federal investigator, who may not be as deeply committed to the case as a local prosecutor. It’s that kind of attitude, and that kind of approach, that has made the Philippines the country with the sixth-worst record in the world in terms of bringing killers of journalists to justice.

Special steps have been taken, and I suppose we could drum up some more. But frankly, who can stop two men from getting on a motorcycle on a busy weekday morning and following a radio announcer as he drops off this daughter at school, and then driving by and shooting him as he gets back in his car, which is a real-life scenario? And then the perpetrators are not brought to justice. It’s a question of political will, it’s a question of economic and social development, it’s a question of a pervasive gun culture. You have to see these killings of journalists, and the uninvestigated killings of many, many, many, many people in the Philippines, as part of a larger political failure.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.