By Juan L. Mercado
(IN THE Philippines) crimes against journalists, and the impunity that surround such acts, show that the press is as vulnerable here as it is in Latin America .”
InterAmerican Press Association Ricardo Trotti gave this blunt assessment before 141 delegates, from nine countries, at the “Impunity and Press Freedom” in Manila.
“The press needs to denounce the most in those countries which can protect the least,” he added “It is in countries, with weak democratic institutions where journalists are frequently murdered, and those responsible go unpunished.”
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Southeast Asian Press Alliance organized the meeting to exchange experiences of other countries.
Since 1986, some 71 Filipino newsmen have been killed. Of these, 34 were cut down during President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo’s watch. There are few convictions. In Latin America , 334 journalists were murdered in over a decade. Seven were desparecidos ( the “disappeared” ) – a legacy of Argentina ’s brutal dictatorship.
“The number of crimes against journalists has not decreased”, Trotti said. ”Organized crime is the major instigator”. So is corruption in government.
In Colombia , narcotics earns twice the country’s gross national product. That illicit income taints whole sectors of society. “Don’t ask where the cow was born,” Argentina ’s Justice Eduardo Freiler advised delegates. “Ask instead where it grazes.”
Over 30,000 were “salvaged” in Argentina over eight years. As investigating judge, Freiler is helping untangle today the cruel scandal of chiquitos desaparecidos: infants given away once their “disappeared” mothers, who delivered in military gulags, were dispatched. Childless military families often were adoptive parents.
In the Philippines, money from warlords, companies and officials, cripples law enforcement, noted ex-defense secretary Ruben Carranza, now of the International Center for Transitional Justice. Civilian paramilitary units, like Cafgu, “get funding from political leaders like the Dimaporos and Eduardo Cojuangco”, he said. Paramilitary ride shotgun for politicians, mining companies and pearl farms in Palawan . Reparation for victims is ignored.
State tolerance or complicity in the killings results in “a sovereignty of the deaf and the dumb,” Supreme Court chief justice Reynato Puno said in his key note address. These cripple the press from providing information, crucial for a democracy.
“Until we do something to submerge this pernicious culture ( of impunity ), these attacks will continue to litter our collective consciousness with the corpses of people who were bearers of truth,” Puno added.
“Impunity results in a form of journalism that is less willing to expose the truth,” the delegates were told. To protect staff, some Mexican papers announced they would no longer report on drug trafficking. The press surrenders it’s role of watchdog and substitutes the superficial.
In “highly volatile societies with frail institutional network”, the press must devise … ways to prevent from being silenced”, editor Maria Teresa Ronderos of Colombia said. Competing papers formed “alliances” to publish commonly-investigated stories in massive corruption cases..To shield staff, no bylines were printed. . “Use precise moderate language. Better facts than adjectives.”
The Puno Court had been concerned by state failure and disinterest in bringing killers to account. Soldiers or policemen, who moonlight as executioners, were shielded by gutting of the writ of habeas corpus. Their agencies stonewalled habeas corpus writs by simply denying they imprisoned the victim.
The military here also got government to refuse to join 103 other countries in in the International Criminal Court, Carranza said. Article 28 of the Rome Statutes provides for “command responsibility”, Yale University ’s Catherine Chung pointed out. Miltary commaders and superiors would be criminally liable for crimes committed by their forces. That’s the legal vacuum the military use in ducking questions on desparecidos like Jonas Burgos and others.
Taking a leaf from Latin America , the Puno Court adopted the “writ of amparo”. This remedy protects those whose right to life, liberty and security is threatened. In these summary proceedings ban , mere denials.
The initial 14 writs forced the military to produce persons they denied holding. “They didn’t want their camps searched”. And the writ forced identification of retired General Jovito Palparan as connected with desparecidos.
It’s too early to tell if the writ of amparo will work, said Justice Adolf Azcuna. Since 1970, Azcuna worked to get the writ into the Constitution. But it was only in 2008, that the courts started using the writ.
Journalists, meanwhile, have mustered defenses, CMFR and other press groups got the courts to transfer venue for trial to more neutral Cebu for the murder of journalist Marlene Esperat and Edgar Damalerio. Training to mustering legal panels have been used.
Private prosecutors have proved invaluable in beefing up patchy, underfunded government prosecution.
“These murders can be stopped only when assassins, up the mastermind are held accountable,” human rights advocate Serena Diokno stressed.…
“Keep in mind that behind each (murder) there is a journalist with a first and last name who died for defending a truth,” Trotti said. There are widows. Orphans. Memory is important.”