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A 'Culture of Impunity' Protects Journalists' Killers in Philippines

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page A24

LAOAG, Philippines -- Roger Mariano's final minutes on the air were true to his reputation as the premier radio crusader in the northernmost Philippines. He was especially animated about alleged graft at the local electric utility. And when he finished his nightly show on Saturday, July 31, he confided to a colleague that he had uncovered records proving corruption.

"It will be a big bomb for my Monday show," Mariano said, according to an account by the station manager.

A journalist covers his face during a protest march last month in Quezon City outside Manila. More than 50 journalists have been killed since 1986. (Erik De Castro -- Reuters)

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Then he slung a bag with the document over his shoulder, his colleagues recalled, and got on his motorcycle for the 10-mile drive home. An hour later, his body was found along a dark stretch of a rural road, shot about 10 times in the back and several times more in the head.

Mariano was the third Philippine journalist murdered this year. Since then, three more have been slain in separate incidents, making the Philippines the most dangerous country for journalists in the world outside of Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

In a country where newspaper reporters and radio broadcasters have long risked harm to tackle sensitive issues, 55 members of the media have been murdered since the reintroduction of democracy and press freedom following the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

Most of the targeted journalists have been broadcasters. In the provinces, radio is king. It reaches into the most remote villages and poorest neighborhoods and, unlike newspapers, is free.

But the prominence this affords correspondents is no guarantee of safety. When journalists report about controversial issues, they can find themselves entangled in a web of overlapping political, business and criminal interests with little protection from local police.

"The culture of impunity in Philippines sets it apart from other places," said Abi Wright of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "There is no chance of retribution if you act against a journalist."

With the recent killings, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has announced rewards for the capture of the killers. The national police have set up a task force to investigate the cases.

Not a single case involving the murder of journalists since 1986 has yielded a conviction. Media advocates attribute this to the power of those who order the killings and their ability to hide hired killers in other parts of the country. This track record, in turn, explains the increasing frequency of these murders, advocates say.

"The fact that no one is convicted for killing journalists really encourages people to attack media practitioners," said Inday Espina-Varona, chairwoman of National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

In some cases, journalists in the provinces have apparently been attacked after becoming involved in questionable business enterprises or taking money from local powerbrokers to disparage their rivals, advocates said.

But they stressed that in at least three cases this year -- the deaths of Mariano, radio and newspaper correspondent Arnel Manalo in Batangas and radio commentator Eliseo Binoya near General Santos City -- the murders were connected to their legitimate work as journalists.

Mariano, 44, was a short, slight man with a shadow of a mustache. He was quiet, even taciturn, when out with friends or home with his wife and eight children. But behind the large, black microphone at DZJC Aksyon Radyo in Laoag, he railed and harangued against crime and corruption.

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