Southeast Asia has unfortunately earned a reputation for not being a safe place for journalists.
The threats? Take any number. They range from imprisonment for crimes under outdated libel and slander laws, detention without trial, violence against media personnel, and impunity in the killing of journalists.
It is no coincidence that journalists who face risks are those whose stories have exposed weaknesses in governance structures, lopsided distribution of resources, and the absence of accountability and transparency. These weaknesses affect the ability of citizens to enjoy all other fundamental rights, such as rights to life, housing, public health, education and livelihood, among others.
Typical advice given to journalists is that there is no story worth risking one’s life for. But lives have been lost in the course of journalists doing their jobs. Only a small portion of murder cases have seen the light of day in the courts because of the extent to which the culture of impunity has taken root.
Impunity is when the perpetrators of killings – be they of journalists or human rights activists or lawyers – are not investigated or brought to justice. That violence and impunity are staking a claim in peaceful democracies should make us jump out of our seats and stop them in their tracks here and now. It’s a zero-sum game: every unpunished crime means a win for the killer, often representing powerful individuals or the state or businesses; and zero for the public, which is deprived of its right to information.
The cold-blooded murder of Marlene Esperat in the Philippines in 2005 is a case in point. As a member of the local Ombudsman’s Office and then as a journalist, Esperat was persistent in her fight against corruption, and obviously came too close to the truth. Esperat, who had worked with the Department of Agriculture in Central Mindanao, the Philippines, went into journalism and wrote for the local Midland’s Review, and had exposed a fertiliser scam and other wrongdoings involving the Agriculture Department. She was killed in front of her children while having dinner at home on March 24, 2005. The suspects in the murder admitted that they were hired to kill her. The price for the kill was US$3,000.
After six years and back-and-forth courtroom haggling, finally the masterminds in Esperat’s case will face trial. It’s still a long way away from closure for her family, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.
Yet one of the darkest days in the history of the media was the brutal massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines – who were on their way to register a candidacy for an election – by the paramilitary thugs of the politically entrenched Ampatuan clan. To date, close to two years after the worst incident of extrajudicial killing in the Philippines’ history, 196 people have been charged. Out of these, only 93, including several members of the Ampatuan family, are currently detained, and 64 on trial. The court case has been marred by delays, the deaths of witnesses, alleged bribes and threats to the plaintiffs in a bid to have them drop their charges.
That incident, on November 23, 2009, has forced not only Filipinos, but the international community, to see the extent to which we have collectively sanctioned crimes against the media. The affects on families and societies linger for years after the crimes have occurred, and serve to entrench the culture of fear.
But the Philippines is not the only country with the problem of impunity. The conditions that lead to impunity – widespread corruption, a weak judiciary, poorly developed enforcement agencies, and weak legal frameworks – exist throughout the region.
In Thailand, two foreign journalists – Hiro Muramoto and Fabio Polenghi – were killed while covering the political conflict in 2010, but those responsible for the deaths have not been prosecuted. Cases of disappearances and the extrajudicial killing of human rights lawyers, environmentalists and labour activists point to a bigger problem in Thailand, with the inability or lack of political will of the state and its enforcement agencies in bringing criminals to justice. In Indonesia, 63 per cent of journalists murdered in 2010 were believed to have died at the hand of government officials, and 75 per cent of the cases remain unsolved, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The solution to the threat of impunity does not lie solely with governments and politicians, although much is in their hands. Media-owners are equally as responsible for the safety of their staff as much as the individual journalists themselves. Above all, the fight to end impunity is a fight by the people who must hold their governments accountable and demand justice after these heinous crimes.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. The November 23 International Day to End Impunity is a global campaign organised for the first time this year. It marks the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.