Murder by other means

The recent rash of media killings has had only local journalists as victims.  There are two reasons for this.  First, because, compared to those in the national media, local journalists are relatively little known and therefore more vulnerable to attack.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, because the entities they expose by their writings tend to be less powerful, more insecure, and therefore more prone to use force.  Hiring a killer, to them, is cheaper than hiring a lawyer; murder is the local thug’s weapon of first choice.

Writers and publishers of the national media people are no less subject to pressure from the powerful.  But they are more capable of ignoring this pressure or standing up to it mainly because of the social power they themselves wield.  Moreover, those they routinely displease tend to have more varied weapons at their disposal.  The favored instruments for silencing journalists at the national level are money, appointment to cushy positions, economic pressure, lawsuits and dismissal from work.  Murder is a last resort.

But whether accomplished by direct or subtle means, the object is the same: to still the voice of media.  As a society becomes more corrupt, that voice also becomes more persistent and provocative. It is true that the exercise of media power is not always driven by pure motives.  Indeed some journalists are in the business of investigating corruption.  But this is not an argument for curbing media freedom; it is an argument for ending corruption.

The power of media probably represents our last hope for combating the culture of corruption that has engulfed our society. The powerful who are corrupt naturally seek to weaken this power. The way this is done at the national level is more subtle and seldom visible.  It doesn’t attract as much attention as the physical elimination of journalists.  It is murder by other means; the effect is the same.

I suspect that media killings have risen in direct proportion to the growing brazenness of corruption in our country.  The more open the corruption, the less afraid the killers are.  The common denominator is impunity.  No one trusts the government anymore to enforce the law as a matter of duty.

The gravity of the situation, however, seems lost on the public officials assigned to stop the killing of media people.  They can’t understand why the killing of journalists should merit so much public attention both here and abroad.  “Not only journalists but other people are getting killed,” says Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Angelo Reyes.  Policemen and soldiers are killed, he says, but hardly anyone notices or cares.  He forgets that journalists are not armed precisely because, unlike the police or the military, killing or being killed is not something expected in the course of their work.

It is disturbing that Sec. Reyes seems bent on waging a campaign to diminish the meaning of the murder of journalists.  He asks journalists to “police their own ranks,” implying that not all of the slain media people were legitimate journalists, or were killed for reasons other than their work, and therefore their death should not be seen as an attack on media. “Who is a journalist?” the Inquirer quotes him.  “I consider journalism a profession that should pass certain criteria of competence, expertise or ethics.  And a roster of real journalists should be maintained because not all attacks on journalists are assaults on press freedom.”  What kind of mindset is this?

By shifting the focus to the victims, the police comes close to exculpating the killers and blaming the victims. This same point of view is evident in the recommendations of the Philippine National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management.  One of the proposals coming from this office is to increase the penalty for libel.  “Stiffer penalties will somehow assure high-profile personalities being victimized by irresponsible media broadcasting that commensurate punishment shall be accorded abusive members of the media.”

The police theory is clear: Journalists who get murdered are either not “real” journalists, or are irresponsible and abusive in their reporting. They probably deserve to die. The people they offend should however be encouraged to consider filing libel suits as a substitute for murder.

No institution that is governed by this attitude can be expected to solve the killings of media people or to bring the perpetrators to justice.  A basic distrust for media has kept the police from doing its work properly.  The police has to outgrow this resentment if it is to be a force for democracy.

Journalists find themselves in the same position as the ChineseFilipinos who are the favorite targets of kidnap-for-ransom gangs. Their killers ride on the dangerous and unexamined public belief that, all things considered, they morally deserve their fate.  They tame the public outrage against the deed by impugning the moral integrity of the group to which the victims belong.  When public authorities begin to adopt this line of thinking, we know we are on the verge of fascism.

Comments to <>