x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The world's deadliest beat for reporters

In eight years, 62 media personnel have been murdered in the Philippines as a result of political violence or through terrorism.

Like many Filipino reporters, Glenda M Gloria has received death threats because of her work.
Like many Filipino reporters, Glenda M Gloria has received death threats because of her work.

MANILA // There had been no death in the family, but when a funeral wreath was delivered to her mother's house, Glenda M Gloria knew it was not a case of mistaken identity. It was a threat in response to her investigation into allegations of government corruption.

She had been reporting on a scandal involving Gloria Arroyo, the Philippine president, who won her second term in 2004. In a leaked recording of a phone call during the run-up to polling day, Mrs Arroyo and the country's elections commissioner sounded like they were discussing how to rig the vote. While investigating the story, Ms Gloria received text messages telling her she was being watched. "It's a mind game. The text messages were telling me, 'you just came from a breakfast meeting with so-and-so'," said Ms Gloria in an interview at the ABS-CBN News Channel, where she is a senior journalist.

"In the scheme of things, my case was a minor case," she added. For many journalists in the Philippines, threats come with the territory. Too often those threats are carried through, as they were for Ernesto Rollins on Feb 23. A radio presenter at Radio DXSY in Ozamiz City, he was shot dead at a petrol station on his way to host his morning programme. Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) rank the Philippines as the most dangerous country to work in after Iraq. But unlike such war zones as Iraq, where the main dangers to journalists come from bombs and stray bullets, Filipino journalists are more often targeted directly.

"The Philippines remains notorious as the country where journalists are most likely to be murdered," according to the 2008 IFJ report on attacks on journalists. The statistics have deteriorated since the country returned to democracy in 1986 after Ferdinand Marcos was ousted. Sixty-two journalists have been killed since Mrs Arroyo took power in 2001. That is more than the number killed during Mr Marcos's 14-year reign.

Among the reasons for the bloodshed are struggles between military, rebel and militant groups and a culture of political violence and impunity. In addition to a communist insurgency, the government is fighting rebels in the Mindanao region who took up arms 40 years ago in a bid to create a separate homeland for Muslims. Since the late 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf militant group has targeted soldiers as well as civilians, including journalists and aid workers, some of whom have been beheaded. Kidnappers claiming to be Abu Sayyaf members are currently holding three International Committee of the Red Cross employees hostage on the remote island of Sulu.

When Ms Gloria visited the island to research her book, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, she said the threat of death was palpable. "In Sulu you could actually smell the danger as soon as you landed at the airport," she said. Ms Gloria said journalists covering the conflicts must cultivate sources with both the military and the rebels, leaving them open to suspicion they are passing information to one side or the other. For her part, she never interviewed Abu Sayyaf leaders.

But political violence claims the lives of even more journalists, Ms Gloria said. Politicians, especially in rural areas, commonly hire gunmen for protection and to intimidate political opponents. Journalists often receive little if any salary from media outlets and they sometimes become involved with politicians who pay them, which makes them targets. "They are using their shows to promote the interests of certain people who are in politics," Ms Gloria said.

Nonoy Espina, vice chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said many journalists are attacked because of their reporting. But others become targets after crossing an ethical line working as spokesmen for politicians or doing favourable reports about them. However, Mr Espina said the deaths of all journalists needed investigation, despite some acting unethically. He said Mr Rollins's reporting might have made him enemies, but he was also known to have worked for politicians. Alex Sy, the station manager at Radio DXSY, told the Associated Press that Mr Rollins was on the payroll of local politicians and acted as their spokesman during elections.

Politically affiliated or not, practising journalism in the southern Philippines is a dangerous job, said Mr Espina, who worked on the island of Negros before moving to Manila. "I've received a lot of threats," he said. "The worst was when I received a text saying, 'tomorrow you will be writing about your family's death'. That shook me." Romy Elusfa, a freelance journalist in Davao, Mindanao, said that like many journalists working in the south, he has received threatening text messages.

While some journalists make enemies because they are connected to politicians, most are not, he said. Instead they are targeted because of their reporting. Of the 62 cases of journalists killed during Mrs Arroyo's tenure, there have been only four convictions, according to the IFJ. Mr Espina said those convictions came about only because journalists, activists and family members pressured officials and sometimes even investigated the cases themselves.

"We equate inaction to tacit approval of what's going on," he said. "All it needs is an unequivocal order for the security forces to stop the killings and get the killers and we still have to hear that order." Ms Gloria said she knows who was behind the death threats against her, although she does not have hard evidence so she would not divulge the name. It was a member of the armed forces. "He's a colonel now, so I guess he got promoted," she said.

jferrie@thenational.ae