To end impunity, tough action is needed from everyone
Southeast Asia – and not just the Philippines - has unfortunately earned a reputation for not being a safe place for journalists. The threats? They range from imprisonment for crimes in outdated libel and slander laws, detention without trial, violence against media personnel, and impunity in the killing of journalists.
It is by no coincidence that journalists who face risks are those whose stories have exposed weaknesses in governance structures, lopsided distribution of resources, and the absence of accountability and transparency. These weaknesses affect the ability of citizens to enjoy all other fundamental rights, such as rights to life, housing, public health, education, and livelihood, among others.
There is no story worth risking one's life for, journalists are often reminded. But lives have been lost in the course of journalists doing their jobs. Only a small portion of the murders see the light of day in courts, underscoring the extent to which the culture of impunity has taken root.
Impunity is when the perpetrators of killings, be that of journalists or human rights activists or lawyers or anybody else, are not brought to justice. It is a zero sum game: every unpunished crime means a win for the killer, representing powerful individuals or the state or businesses; and zero for the public, who is now deprived of its right to information.
The cold-blooded murder of Ms. Marlene Esperat in the Philippines in 2005 is a case in point.
As a member of the local Ombudsman's office and then as a journalist, Esperat was persistent in her fight against corruption, and obviously came too close to the truth. Esperat, who had worked with the Department of Agriculture in Central Mindanao, went into journalism and wrote for the local Midland's Review, and had exposed a fertilizer scam and other wrongdoings involving the agriculture department. She was killed in front of her children while they were having dinner at home on 24 March 2005. The suspects in the murder admitted they were hired to kill her. The price for the kill was around P150,000.
After six years of back-and-forth court haggling, finally, the masterminds in Esperat's case will face trial. It is still a long way from closure for her family, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.
November 23 marks the second anniversary of the darkest day in the history of media: Two years ago 58 people, including 32 media workers, were massacred in Ampatuan town, in the Southern Philippines province of Maguindanao. To date 196 people have been charged in connection with the crime. Out of these, only 93, including several members of the Ampatuan family, are currently detained. Only 64 are on trial. The trial itself has been marred by delays, deaths of witnesses, alleged bribes and threats to the plaintiffs.
The massacre on 23 November in 2009 has forced not only the Filipinos, but the international community as well, to see the extent to which we have collectively sanctioned crimes against the media. The impact on families and societies linger years after the crimes have occurred, and deeply entrenches the culture of fear.
To be clear: the Philippines is not the only country struggling against impunity. The conditions that lead to impunity - widespread corruption, a weak judiciary, poorly developed enforcement agencies, and weak legal frameworks - exist throughout the region.
In Thailand, two foreign journalists - Hiro Muramoto and Fabio Polenghi - were killed while covering the country's political conflict in 2010, but those responsible for the deaths have not been prosecuted. Cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killing of human rights lawyers, environmentalists and labor activists point to a bigger problem in Thailand - the inability or lack of political will of the state and its enforcement agencies to bring criminals to justice. In Indonesia, 63 percent of journalists murdered in 2010 were believed to have died in the hands of government officials. Around 75 percent of the cases remain unsolved, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The solution to impunity does not lie solely with governments and politicians, although much is in their hands. Media owners are as much responsible for the safety of their staff as the individual journalists themselves. Above all, the fight to end impunity is a fight of the people who must hold their governments accountable and demand for justice in these heinous crimes.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran is Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). The November 23 International Day to End Impunity is a global campaign organized for the first time this year. It marks the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.