Journalists' groups hit Duterte's justification of media killings

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Journalists' groups on Tuesday, May 31, slammed President-elect Rodrigo Duterte for his statement justifying the killing of corrupt members of the media.

In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) called Duterte's statement "appalling."

"Mr Duterte's crass pronouncement not only sullies the names and memories of all 176 of our colleagues who have been murdered since 1986, he has also, in effect, declared open season to silence the media, both individual journalists and the institution, on the mere perception of corruption," the NUJP said.

During a press conference in Davao City on Tuesday night, Duterte was asked how he plans to stop media killings in the Philippines, considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

In 2009, 32 journalists were among the 58 killed in the Maguindanao massacre, considered the country's worst case of election-related violence and the single deadliest attack on journalists.

In response, Duterte said: "Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch."

"Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won't be killed if you don't do anything wrong," he added, saying that many journalists took bribes or engaged in corrupt activities.

No justification

The NUJP said that while it recognizes media corruption as a problem and a possible reason for a number of media killings, it is not a justification for taking life.

It also raised questions on Duterte's assertion that the killing of corrupt reporters was retribution from private individuals who were unjustly targeted by the media.

"While there may be instances where private individuals may have sought revenge against journalists for soiling their reputations, the data shows that, of the handful of media killings that have actually made it to the courts, the accused are invariably from government – elected officials, government executives or members of the security services – and invariably accused of corruption," the NUJP said.

It went on to cite prominent cases of media killings, including the murders of Edgar Damalerio of Pagadian City, Marlene Esperat of Tacurong City, and environmentalist Gerry Ortega of Puerto Princesa City. (READ: Ortega family 'incensed' over Duterte justification of media killings)

"We wonder if the president-elect is willing to face the orphans and widows of the victims of these killings and tell them, 'They were killed because they were corrupt,'" the NUJP said. 

The group also expressed its disappointment on Duterte's latest pronouncement, noting how the president-elect had earlier vowed to push for the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) law and create a task force to investigate media killings.

"We were hopeful...that we were on the cusp of a new era when freedom of the press and of expression would be respected, defended and promoted beyond lip service," the NUJP said.

"Alas, it seems we were wrong. Or are we to be again treated to the excuse that it was all a joke and we need to be more discerning about your pronouncements?"

The NUJP also reminded Duterte that his words, made seriously or in jest, carries weight and will "resound with [his] followers." 

"Thus, even if this be jest, and we see no reason to believe this was the case, your words may well be interpreted as marching order by those with an axe to grind against a critical press," it said.

For its part, Malacañang said in a statement that it found deplorable the proposition that the slain journalists were killed due to their alleged involvement in corrupt activities.

"We recognize the vital role played by journalists as purveyors of information in a democratic society. As citizens, they have a fundamental right to due process and equal protection of the laws of the land," Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said.

"Hence, we deplore the proposition that some journalists may have been assaulted or killed in view of their alleged involvement in media corruption. It is the duty of government to arrest, prosecute and punish those responsible for violence against members of the media," he added.

Violence against journalists

Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) also raised concern that Duterte's statement could be interpreted as a "license to kill" members of the media.

"While saying that most of the media killings were motivated by corruption involving the victims, the president-elect did not provide evidence that can be used to bring the perpetrators to justice nor condemn the killings to discourage future attacks," FOCAP said.

While both groups acknowledged that media corruption remains a continuing problem, they said that this should not be a justification for murder or any form of harassment.

"President-elect Duterte was correct in saying that irresponsible, biased, paid-for reporting and comment do lead to a journalist’s being killed. But the killing of anyone is nevertheless still a crime, and it doesn’t matter whether the victim is a journalist or not. Everyone, including journalists, is entitled to, and deserves the protection of the State," CMFR said.

It added, "Far from suggesting that nothing can be done about the killing of journalists, we have made policy recommendations that could help to stop such violence, steps which call on law enforcement agencies to do a better job of protecting citizens and which could help to end the culture of impunity."

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines – Northern Mindanao Region (CEGP-NMR), in a statement issued Thursday, June 2, also expressed alarm over the possible impact of Duterte's statement.

"It seems that the President-elect does not fully grasp the reality that media killings occur because they expose the corruption and injustices in their local government and community. Two of them were Cosme Maestrado and Gregorio Ybanez, who were brutally murdered last year," the group said.

"From Doc Gerry Ortega to the Maguindanao Massacre and present media killings, the culture of impunity has prevailed, no justice has been served. Their assailants have been put to trial but yet enjoy perks. Hence, the Guild is alarmed with the possible aggravation of atrocities done against journalists under the administration of the presumptive President," it added.

RSF: Boycott press conferences

Meanwhile, Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "outraged" by Duterte's comment, and urged Philippine media to boycott Duterte's press conferences until he apologizes.

The group also called for legal action to be lodged against the president-elect.

"We urge organizations that represent the media to not overlook comments of this kind and to bring lawsuits. We also urge the media to boycott the Duterte administration’s news conferences until the media community gets a public apology," said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“Not only are these statements unworthy of a president but they could also be regarded as violations of the law on defamation or even the law on inciting hatred and violence,” he added. – Rappler.com