One year. It’s hard to believe it has been that long since the horrific events of November 23, 2009 unfolded. Practically every journalist in the Philippines can tell you where he was when he learned of the news: it was one of those events that developed slowly from morning until night-time, such that most working newsmen and newswomen had gotten wind of it when the 57 victims were simply “missing” and not yet “massacred.” The first bits of information came in the form of calls from various affected groups – lawyers and journalists, as well as families – for the safe return of their colleagues and kin. They had known where the victims had gone and for what purpose; that they could no longer be contacted was an ominous sign that something terrible had happened to them.
As it has turned out, something terrible did happen to the 57, and we remember it not just because of the number of the victims but because of the sheer horror they had faced. According to witnesses, they were beaten, bound, and systematically shot dead – some inside their own vehicles, others on the ground. It did not matter to the killers who their victims were; indeed, some of the journalists who were there were friends of the alleged mastermind. The women were not spared in the bloodthirsty massacre.
What terror the victims must have felt is inconceivable; most of us will never know what it is to be mauled and violated with the full knowledge that what follows is only death. That the whole thing was planned – as evidenced by the presence of the now infamous backhoe which had dug up the ground prior to the massacre – makes the crime that much more reprehensible.
A recent survey showed that a large portion of society is dissatisfied with how government is handling the cases against the accused in the massacre. That is understandable, for the murder of 57 people cries out for quick justice. What is needed is constant pressure on those involved in the case to continue what has already been started; it may have been a slow beginning, but the end can be sped up if the people choose never to forget.
One of the sad realities of the lives of community journalists is that they work under conditions that may only be called difficult. Indeed, the greatest irony in the journalists’ work is that while they are called upon to report on injustices, they themselves often suffer from low wages and hazardous work conditions. Most media workers in the regions and provinces are not even regulars at their places of employment, and many are forced to seek extra income elsewhere.
This situation is untenable and even dangerous because it opens them to the schemes of various vested interests that seek to undermine press freedom – and the telling of the truth – through the use of money or power. Rumour has it that the journalists who were killed in last year’s massacre in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao Province had been “convinced” to join the ill-fated convoy by being offered a large sum of money. If that were true, it would surely be a black eye on the media, but it also underscores the vulnerability of the workers who are forced to accept such “tokens” because they cannot live on what they make as journalists.
And of course if money does not work, there is the tried-and-tested tool of violence, deadly or otherwise. Dozens upon dozens of Filipino journalists have been killed in the past decade, gunned down because they were doing their job of informing the public of the questionable and blatantly illegal practices of the high and mighty. The Philippines is already among the most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist, but few people see this as more than a threat to the media workers: it is a threat to democracy itself, for where journalists are not able to tell their stories, the truth is compromised and the people are not able to act in an informed manner.
Ultimately, protecting journalists is the best way to protect our still fragile democracy.
Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.