April 29, 2014

Ed Henry of Fox News asked the – literally – killer question of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during his April 28, 2014 joint news conference with visiting US President Barack Obama: “President Aquino, as a journalist, I’d like to ask you why 26 journalists have been killed since you took office?” He also wanted to know why there have only been suspects arrested in six of those cases. “What are you doing to fix that?”

Those questions touched on a literally life-and-death issue for Filipino reporters. Despite the country’s reputation as a regional bastion of a free media unhobbled by official censorship, journalism is an increasingly deadly line of work. Twelve Filipino journalists were murdered in 2013, the highest number since Aquino’s election to office in 2010. Although one of Aquino’s key campaign promises was to end impunity for the killings of journalists and activists, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported in November 2013 that 23 journalists had been killed in Aquino’s first 40 months in office. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2014 impunity index, which “spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free,” ranks the Philippines as the world’s third most dangerous country after Iraq and Somalia.

The problem? Although Filipino journalists do not face state censorship, reporters who take on sensitive topics such as government corruption and organized crime often risk deadly reprisals by local politicians with “private armies,” corrupt police officers, and criminal syndicates.

While Henry’s question channeled the fears and frustrations of Filipino journalists, President Aquino’s initial reply – “Perhaps the track record speaks for itself” – compounded impressions of his government’s failure to address the problem. That track record is poor, with arrests in only six of the journalist murder cases during Aquino’s time in office. In only two of those cases have the gunmen been convicted – but not the masterminds who ordered and paid for the murders. Meanwhile, the killings continue. On April 7, unidentified gunmen shot dead tabloid reporter Rubylita Garcia in Bacoor, a town south of Manila. Police have not made any arrests.

Aquino later defended his government’s failure to end the impunity of media sector murders by stating that “investigations are ongoing” and suggesting that such killings occur due to unspecified “other issues.” That response dodges the inconvenient truth that police have failed to fully investigate the majority of these cases and that the majority of suspects – many of them powerful local government officials – remain at large. Until President Aquino addresses his government’s glaring failure to hold these killers to account, journalists in the Philippines will continue to fear for their lives.