Pablo Hernandez held a 9mm handgun with his right hand, steadied it with his left, sighted on a target 30 feet away and fired. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Spent shells dropped away, and the acrid smell of gunpowder filled the air.

The target was cardboard, but one day it could be a real person. Hernandez, a columnist for a Philippines tabloid, evaded an assassin's bullets last month. He is among a group of reporters, columnists and broadcasters who are campaigning to arm journalists in response to violence against them.

Since 2000, more than 20 journalists have been killed in connection with their work, making the Philippines the deadliest country in the world for the profession, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The killings have all taken place in rural provinces, where corrupt officials, including police, compound the problem. Many of the victims have been radio broadcasters who voiced their opinions on the air. In response to the attacks, some reporters last month formed the Association of Responsible Media, or ARMED.

"We're not waiting for the policemen. We ourselves can now shoot back," said Joel Syegco, a police reporter for the Manila Standard Today newspaper and the group's founder. He wore a black T-shirt with the message: "Stop Killing Journalists."

"If somebody should come at me, point a gun at me, should I wait for him to shoot me?" he asked.

Other journalists and advocates for press freedom expressed alarm, saying that carrying guns would not offer protection but instead create more violence and bloodshed. They fear a culture of vigilantism in a society where the rule of law is tenuous.

"Guns and journalists are a pretty deadly mix," said Inday Espina-Varona, chairwoman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. "We live in a pressure-cooker world, always tense, always on the run, terribly overworked and terribly underpaid, especially in the Philippines. When you're hot, in a temper, a weapon of self-defense can inadvertently be turned into a weapon against innocent people."

Espina-Varona noted that several journalists who have been killed in the last few years had been carrying weapons. The formation of ARMED "is a cry of desperation," she said. "I don't want my colleagues to fall into the trap of picking up a responsibility that is the government's."

Nathan Lee, a researcher at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila, attributes the killings to "a vicious cycle of violence" spawned by widespread lawlessness and corruption. The cycle goes something like this: Broadcasters or columnists condemn the corruption, the targets retaliate with threats or assassination attempts, and the local police are either unable or unwilling to protect the accusers.

"We don't think there is a conscious effort to silence these journalists," Lee said.

According to the Center for Media Freedom, 53 journalists have been killed since 1986, when the totalitarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted and the press opened up. In only two cases were there convictions. Five cases have been dismissed, 22 are pending and the rest are under investigation. Judicial reform is also needed.

On a recent rainy morning, seven journalists arrived at True Weight, an indoor firing range. Among them was Itchie Cabayan, who won first place in a "media fellowship shoot fest" held in February at a military firing range. Cabayan, 38, a small woman, writes a column for the daily tabloid Police Files Tonite. She said that she took up shooting firearms as a hobby but that when she began getting death threats -- "It will take just one bullet," one anonymous caller said -- she obtained a permit to carry a weapon.

Hernandez, a columnist for the popular tabloid Bulgar, writes under the rubric "Frankly" and takes aim at gambling bosses, drug dealers, politicians and corrupt police officers. Often, he names people, and he does not usually seek their comment.

He said he obtained a gun license after he was stabbed in the back in February with an ice pick. The suspects in the attack included a police colonel, said Espina-Varona.

Early on the morning of May 18, two men on a motorbike tried to block Hernandez's car, and one had a handgun drawn. Hernandez pulled out an Ingram semiautomatic weapon and fired. The assailants fired back as they sped away.

Journalists should arm themselves, he said, "because the government is not sincere about arresting the masterminds in the media killings."

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has condemned the killings and ordered the formation of a task force to solve the problem. But, in the meantime, journalists such as Hernandez are taking no chances.

When the target practice was finished, an uncle and a friend, serving as bodyguards, accompanied Hernandez to a van with tinted windows. All three carried weapons.

Last week, an anonymous caller phoned Hernandez's paper and warned that "Pabs" would be "dead by July." Hernandez said he has stopped working in his newspaper office, opting instead for a safe house in Manila and submitting his columns by fax.

Although news outlets in the Philippines are considered free of government control, journalists acknowledge the need for greater professionalism, along with higher salaries and better training.

At the same time, there are many honorable journalists in the country. One of them, Syegco said, was Marlene Esperat, a columnist who was killed March 24 on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Esperat had written a series of exposes about illegal logging and graft in the local Agriculture Department. The killing, at home in front of her family, spurred Syegco to form ARMED.

The group held its first formal target practice last week, and about 100 Manila journalists showed up, Syegco said, adding that chapters were being formed nationwide.

Espina-Varona said she believed that only a few journalists here would resort to carrying firearms. "There's really only one answer, and that's to arrest, prosecute and convict the killers," she said. "And to make sure that those police who are found to be protectors of killers of journalists are convicted as well."

Syegco said that his group was pressing for safety seminars for journalists, to teach them how to be alert for threats. New T-shirts would be provided, too, he said, bearing the message: "Start Kissing Journalists."

A Filipino broadcaster stands guard with an assault rifle outside a radio station in the city of General Santos.