World News

Years of living dangerously for journalists in the Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines was already considered among the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist even before 27 were killed on Monday in an election-related massacre.

A housewife and her son mourn near the coffin of her husband who was among the journalists massacred in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during a wake in General Santos city in southern Philippines, November 27, 2009. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

The National Union of Journalists has said 59 journalists had been killed in the Philippines since 2001, without counting this week’s victims. Reporters are routinely threatened, some are shot and some kidnapped.

But this week’s killings have exponentially increased risks, reporters and media analysts said on Friday. The killing of so many journalists on assignment in a single incident is difficult to imagine even in Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, they said.

“For years, we hid behind our press IDs (identification cards) as a shield against danger in covering conflict areas in the southern Philippines,” broadcast journalist Ed Lingao told Reuters.

“But this incident has made us realize our press IDs can no longer protect us. It’s a piece of paper. It cannot stop a bullet.”

The journalists were accompanying the family of a politician to file his candidacy for next year’s elections. They were attacked by gunmen suspected to be supporters of a rival clan.

The candidate had decided against filing his nomination himself because of safety worries and had sent his wife and sisters, and the journalists, in the belief that they would be safe from attack.

Arlyn dela Cruz, a television reporter who was once kidnapped by Islamic militants, said the killings would prompt caution.

“These killings show us how vulnerable our local reporters are to rebels, private armies and warlords,” dela Cruz said, adding the massacre would have a more direct impact on provincial reporters and freelancers not protected by large organizations.

The Philippines has a free-wheeling press and usually the media is held in high regard. Even communist rebels and Muslim radical outfits routinely keep in touch with newspapers and television channels and seek to put out their point of view.

Journalists have fallen victim to local officials angered by stories uncovering corruption, and many have been killed. Several have been kidnapped by Muslim rebels in the lawless southern Philippines, but all have been freed after payments of ransom.

Corruption in the media, with underpaid journalists sometimes taking bribes to report stories, also places reporters in danger from disgruntled paymasters or rivals.

But these threats pale beside Monday’s chilling developments.

“I have never seen anything so horrific,” Vergel Santos, a media analyst and newspaper columnist, told Reuters, adding the murder of 27 journalists in a day “will send the greatest chill” to the Philippine press.

“Journalism should be defined by the environment in which it is practiced. The quality of freedom is determined by the risk that one takes in the exercise of that freedom. Where is freedom when more than 20 journalists are killed in a single day?”

Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie