The overwhelming issue facing the Philippine press in 2003 was the increasing number of journalists murdered with impunity. In the last year alone, at least five journalists were slain in the course of their work – a toll surpassed only by war-related killings of journalists in Iraq. But in the Philippines, this violence is not a temporary aberration; it has become the normal state of affairs, year after year. While the Philippine media have been among the freest in the developing world since democracy was restored in 1986, more than 40 journalists there have been slain. No one has been convicted in any of the killings.

Most of those murdered have been provincial radio journalists, frequently on the strife-torn island of Mindanao. Often, the slayings came in revenge for outspoken criticism of powerful local political leaders. Nationally known radio commentator Juan "Jun" Pala, who was gunned down near his home in September, had already survived two attempts on his life. Pala, a hard-line anticommunist conservative and critic of the mayor of his hometown of Davao City, was, like many Philippine radio journalists, opinionated, enmeshed in local politics, and vocal in his diatribes against his enemies. Before his murder, Pala accused the mayor on the air of plotting to kill him.

Despite his background, Pala's death brought condemnation even from mainstream press groups. "He may have used his radio program for his own interests," said the National Union of Journalists in a statement, "but his murder and its particular brutality reinforces the idea that, in this country, people who dare to speak out – for whatever reason – are fair game, that violence is the only response to the power of the word."

Unlike Pala, it is rare that those killed are known beyond their communities, so they are easy targets. On May 17, unidentified men ambushed Apolinario "Polly" Pobeda, a commentator on radio station DWTI in Lucena City, in southern Luzon, while he was riding his motorcycle to the studio. The suspects, who have been arrested, are reportedly bodyguards for the son of the town's mayor, whom Pobeda frequently targeted in his broadcasts, according to press reports. The mayor has denied any involvement in the killing.

Other journalists killed for their work in the Philippines in 2003 were: Bonifacio Gregorio, of Dyaryo Banat newspaper in La Paz, Tarlac (July 8); Noel Villarante, of DZJV Radio and the Laguna Score newspaper in Santa Cruz, Laguna (August 19); and Rico Ramirez, of DXSF Radio, San Francisco, Agusan del Sur (August 20). The only link between these victims is that they were all working as low-paid journalists in provincial areas, and that no one has been charged with their murders.

Taking account of this carnage, several Philippine press organizations joined forces in early 2003 to form the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition devoted to providing assistance to victims' families and pressuring the government to respond forcefully to the murders. In November, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo offered a 1 million peso (US$18,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible for killing a journalist in the last five years.

The reward may be more of a public relations stunt than a serious attempt to pursue justice, since deep problems in the criminal justice system often keep suspects from being brought to trial. The high-profile murder of broadcaster Edgar Damalerio in Mindanao in April 2002 is a case in point. Two witnesses identified a local police officer by name as the assailant. Police and prosecutors failed to act for months until local and international pressure finally forced a judge to issue an arrest warrant for the suspect in February 2003. But it was too late. The officer, who had been under house arrest in police headquarters, disappeared shortly after the warrant was issued and has not been seen since. Damalerio's widow, who has been in hiding since the killing, told CPJ that she and her family still face death threats because of their desire to push for justice in the case.

Philippine journalists suffer from poor working conditions and low pay. Corruption within the press is also common. Frequently, politicians and other powerful figures will pay radio commentators and newspaper columnists to attack their enemies or promote their agendas in the media. Companies and government agencies routinely offer stipends to favored journalists, and some reporters extort money from politicians by threatening to write negative stories unless they are paid.

In terms of safety, a huge gap exists between conditions for journalists working for national outlets in Manila and their colleagues in the provinces. In rural areas, members of the press must face criminal justice systems that are often at the mercy of local political bosses, as well as guerrilla warfare in such places as Mindanao – all of which becomes especially dangerous when journalists speak out against abuses and corruption.

Journalists in Manila tend to be hit by lawsuits rather than bullets or fists. In August, officials arrested well-known Daily Tribune Publisher and Editor Ninez Cacho-Olivares after she wrote an article accusing a powerful local lawyer with ties to the president of trying to extort money from a company involved in the construction of a new terminal at the Manila international airport. The lawyer filed a criminal libel suit against her, and she was taken to a police station, where Olivares appeared on TV and radio to denounce the charges. By year's end, the case had not yet gone to trial.

The murders and other pressures have done little, however, to silence the outspoken press in the Philippines. Paradoxically, violence committed with impunity in the provinces coexists with some very high-caliber journalism produced in Manila. The national press, both print and broadcast, is very outspoken, with politicians generally courting journalists, not attacking them. Philippine journalists can – and have – brought down presidents and fought long battles to preserve and expand their freedoms. The Philippines has the oldest independent press in Asia and was the first country in the region to have private broadcasting stations. Much of the Philippine media are seen as good examples of professionalism throughout the region, making the record of killings and violence in the country all the more troubling.

2003 Documented Cases – The Philippines

MARCH 14, 2003

DxRM-Radyo Natin
Aguinaldo Jaluag, DxRM-Radyo Natin
Exiquel Cacafranca, DxRM-Radyo Natin

At least three unidentified men entered the DxRM-Radyo Natin offices in Tandag, Surigao del Sur, tied up anchor Jaluag, reporter Cacafranca, and technician John Calamba, and then poured acid over the station's equipment, according to Philippine press reports. Another occupant in the building called the police, but the assailants had fled by the time officers arrived.

Local journalists said the attack may have been linked to a morning program on the station that often criticized local politicians. In April, the National Bureau of Investigation announced that it had identified the assailants and was prepared to make arrests, but no one has been charged.

About a month before the attack, station manager Arvin Malasa survived several gunshot wounds sustained during an attack by unidentified assailants, according to news reports.

APRIL 29, 2003

Juan "Jun" Pala, DXGO Radio

Pala, a broadcaster for DXGO Radio, in Davao City, Davao del Sur, was ambushed by three unidentified assailants while returning home from work in a taxi, according to the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). Pala was hospitalized after being shot in his left buttock.

According to Philippine news reports, a van pulled ahead of Pala's taxi, and three men inside began firing M-16 rifles at him. Pala's taxi driver told reporters that the assailants appeared to be clearly aiming at Pala, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. Pala, who was armed, and his three bodyguards fired back at the attackers.

The motive for the attack on Pala is unclear. No group has claimed responsibility, and police have not named any suspects. Pala is known for using his radio program to fiercely criticize local politicians and communist insurgents. Pala was later murdered on September 6.

MAY 17, 2003

Apolinario "Polly" Pobeda, DWTI-AM Radio

At about 6 a.m., two unidentified gunmen stopped radio host Pobeda as he rode his motorcycle to work in Lucena City, Quezon Province, and shot him repeatedly, according to Philippine press reports. Pobeda suffered seven gunshot wounds, including one to his head. He was brought to a hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival.

On Pobeda's radio program, "Nosi Balasi" (Who Are They?), which he co-hosted on DWTI-AM, the journalist often criticized corrupt local officials. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that Pobeda was particularly outspoken against Lucena City Mayor Ramon Talaga, whom the journalist had accused of being involved in the local drug trade.

Pobeda had received repeated anonymous death threats, including one about a month before his murder, according to his wife, Rowena Morales.

On May 22, police arrested Eric and Eulogio Patulay as suspects in the murder. An eyewitness to the crime had identified the brothers as the triggermen, according to local police. Press reports said the Patulay brothers were bodyguards of Romano Talaga, Ramon Talaga's son, although Romano Talaga claimed they had just acted as his "guides" when he traveled. Both the Patulays and Ramon Talaga denied any involvement in Pobeda's murder. A third suspect remains at large.

Pobeda's colleagues and family members say he was murdered for his work. "My husband was killed because he exposed the wrongdoing of the government," Morales told the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a Manila-based press freedom organization.

JULY 8, 2003

Bonifacio Gregorio, Dyaryo Banat

Gregorio, a reporter and columnist for the weekly Dyaryo Banat, in La Paz, a town in the central Tarlac Province, was talking to a colleague on a cell phone in front of his house when an unidentified gunman shot him in the head three times at close range. According to news reports, the gunman was likely a professional killer who fled the scene on foot. Gregorio was rushed to La Paz District Hospital, before being transferred to Ramos General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Local journalists believe that Gregorio, 55, was killed for his journalistic work. Before joining the newspaper, Gregorio served for nine years as chief of Caramutan, a barangay, or village, in La Paz. During his three years as a columnist for Dyaryo Banat, Gregorio wrote many critical articles about officials in La Paz, including Mayor Dionisio Manuel. Shortly before Gregorio's death, the journalist had accused Manuel of building a cemetery without following local regulations. In interviews with local newspapers, Manuel has denied having anything to do with Gregorio's death.

While police have formed a special task force to solve Gregorio's murder, and Tarlac Governor Jose Yap Sr. has publicly urged police to find the killer and prosecute him, no arrests have been made.

AUGUST 4, 2003

Ninez Cachos Olivarez, Daily Tribune

At 6:30 a.m., police arrived at Cachos Olivarez's house and arrested her on criminal libel charges. Cachos Olivarez, editor and publisher of the Daily Tribune, was briefly detained at the headquarters of the Western Police District, in the capital, Manila. After paying 20,000 pesos (US$365) in bail, she was released. She is currently awaiting arraignment.

Arthur Villaraza, the personal lawyer of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has filed a total of 46 counts of libel against the journalist in response to a series of articles published in the Daily Tribune about Villaraza's involvement with a controversial airport project. The Daily Tribune articles accused Villaraza and presidential aides of extortion in the project, which involved the German air terminal company Fraport.

The Daily Tribune had printed transcripts of alleged conversations between Villaraza and Fraport representatives. Villaraza argued that the conversations had been recorded illegally. Criminal libel carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison in the Philippines.

AUGUST 19, 2003

Noel Villarante, DZJV Radio, Laguna Score

Villarante, of DZJV Radio and the local newspaper Laguna Score, was shot and killed by a gunman outside his house in Santa Cruz City, in central Laguna Province. After being shot once, Villarante ran inside his home. While his relatives helped him outside again to get to a hospital, the gunman shot him twice in the head, killing him instantly.

Villarante was known for his critical reports on allegedly corrupt local officials and drug traffickers. An editor of Laguna Score told journalists he believes that Villarante was murdered in reprisal for his work, and that the reporter had received numerous death threats in the past.

On August 26, police in Laguna announced that they had arrested Senando Palumbarit, identified in press reports as a civilian police agent, as a suspect in Villarante's murder. The National Bureau of Investigation said that Palumbarit's arrest was based on a police sketch of the suspect. Palumbarit has denied any involvement in the murder.

Local journalists have expressed concerns that the investigation into Villarante's killing has not been conducted in a thorough and impartial manner, and that Palumbarit's arrest is part of a police effort to protect high-profile individuals who may be responsible for killing the journalist. Soon after the murder, Santa Cruz Police Chief Superintendent Renato Paras told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that investigators were hesitant to reveal too many details about the case because high-profile individuals could be behind the killing.

Soon after Villarante's murder, police ransacked his house and confiscated a number of articles he had written, according to the Philippine Star newspaper. Villarante's sister told the Star that during the search, officers treated her family and her deceased brother as criminal suspects. The regional police superintendent has ordered an investigation into the incident.

AUGUST 20, 2003

Rico Ramirez, DXSF Radio

Police found the body of Ramirez, a commentator for DXSF Radio, on the side of the road in San Francisco, a town in the southern province of Agusan del Sur. Authorities did not announce the murder until September 2 but offered no explanation for the two-week delay.

The motive for Ramirez's murder is unclear. Police said that he had been shot once in the back, but that the investigation was hindered by the fact that there were no witnesses. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Ramirez had reported on corruption and official wrongdoing by local politicians.

A DXSF Radio manager told the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility that Ramirez could have been killed "because of his recent exposés on the crime and drug syndicates operating in the area." However, police have no suspects, and the police superintendent investigating the case said that Ramirez had no known enemies.


Juan "Jun" Pala, DXGO Radio

Unidentified gunmen riding a motorcycle shot Pala while he was walking home with a bodyguard and a friend in Davao City. The journalist, who suffered nine gunshot wounds, was pronounced dead on arrival at the San Pedro Hospital, according to the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). His companions sustained minor injuries.

Pala, a commentator on DXGO Radio, was also known as an anticommunist activist. The motive for his murder is unclear.

Pala had repeatedly been targeted for attack before his death. On April 29, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a taxi carrying Pala, wounding him in the buttocks. After that attack, Pala had been airing his show, "Isumbong Mo Kay Pala" (Tell Pala), from his home, according to CMFR.

In the 1980s, Pala was known for his fiery criticisms of communist rebel groups. At that time, he also served as a spokesperson for an anticommunist vigilante group. In recent years, his radio show had focused more on exposing corruption among local politicians, according to CMFR and press reports.

Following Pala's murder, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the Philippine National Police to form a task force to investigate all recent murders of journalists.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2003

DXMV Radio

Valencia City Mayor Jose Galario ordered the closure of DXMV Radio and padlocked the station's doors, according to press reports. Mayor Galario said he wanted to close the station because some of its broadcasters did not have the proper accreditation. Station employees and other local journalists believe that the mayor's actions came in response to commentaries aired on DXMV that criticized his policies. Two local politicians who oppose Galario host paid programs on DXMV.

DXMV Station Manager Nonette Rosales said that she and her colleagues were able to defy the mayor's order and continue broadcasting. On September 22, Mayor Galario sent a letter to Rosales stating that he had lifted the closure order.

DECEMBER 2, 2003
Posted: December 3, 2003

Nelson Nadura, Radio DYME

Nadura, a commentator for Radio DYME in the Philippine's central Masbate City, was shot dead at about 8:30 a.m. by two unidentified gunmen. The attack occurred while Nadura was on his motorcycle leaving the radio station after his daily broadcast, according to press reports and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a Manila-based press freedom organization. He died immediately from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Six empty shells and a slug were found on the scene. The suspects fled on foot.

The motive behind Nadura's killing is unclear, and police are conducting an investigation. Nadura, 42, hosted a morning talk show on political affairs called "Opinyon Publiko," during which he criticized local officials. A former member of the communist rebel group New Peoples Army, Nadura was amnestied in 1998 after surrendering to the government. He later started working as a radio commentator. At the time of his death, he was president of the Union of Print and Broadcast Journalists of Masbate.

On December 3, President Gloria Macagapal Arroyo condemned Nadura's murder, stating, "These attacks against members of the press shall not go unpunished." Since the return of democracy in the Philippines in 1986, more than 40 journalists have been murdered there for their work. None of these murders has been solved.

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