Journalists: In the line of fire

The massacre in southern Philippines in 2009 claimed the lives of 58 people including 32 journalists.

It’s a beautiful tropical paradise, with white sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters. The weather is warm all year round, and the people have gained a reputation as being among the friendliest and most hospitable in the world.

Its tourism ministry’s official campaign proclaims: “It’s more fun in the Philippines…,” and many will agree. It’s a good time to be here.

Though many of its problems remain, the archipelagic nation of almost 90 million people is definitely on the rise. Its economy is growing, and investor confidence is returning – due in large part to a government that seems determined to battle corruption.

It maintains the liveliest democracy in the region. But at the same time, despite not being an “active war zone”, the Philippines has been called the deadliest country in the world for journalists. The latest international body to dub it so is the Southeast Asian Press Alliance – an independent network of media practitioners based in Bangkok.

One of the first stories Al Jazeera looked into when the bureau was set up in Manila seven years ago was to do with local journalists and how many of them felt the need to protect themselves by carrying weapons.

Aside from just a tape recorder, or pen and paper, quite a number of Filipino journalists also stash revolvers, or small handguns. They said that they know the work they are doing could get them killed, and they needed to at least give themselves a fair shot at fighting back. All it took was offending the wrong strongman, or politician, and a contract would be put on their heads.

And there are many “strongmen” in the Philippines. Warlords. Powerful clan leaders. Rich men with the ability to buy guns and even run their own armies.

You see, these journalists said, the Philippines was quite weak in implementing any law. So before any libel suits could progress in the courts, it was “more effective” and definitely much cheaper for the aggrieved party to send a killer to top someone off. Usually, these guns-for-hire would get away with it. Many crimes go unresolved, with the police not only ill-equipped, but under-staffed.

We had also found that, sometimes, police officers themselves would be involved in the contract killings. After all, they too needed a way to augment their very poor income. Taking on a single “job” could bring in an extra $100. That goes a long way in countries such as The Philippines.

Financial threat

And speaking of low incomes, it has to be said that, no matter how cheap things might perceptively be in the Philippines, it is still very difficult to live on a journalist’s salary here. Many have to take on second, or even third, jobs to support their families. Others will tell you they have had little other choice than to “sell” their reputations, and media space to “clients” as if they were advertisers instead of journalists. The perfect breeding ground for corruption.

Regardless of what the positive-thinkers, or the government, might say, the self-proclaimed “realists” point out that not much has changed here in seven years. Impunity still rules, guns remain plentiful, and freedom of expression is still worth more in theory, or on paper, than in deed.

But this is still not the entire story.

There are also the unscrupulous lot who are known here as “envelop-mental” journalists. They’ve been called that because of the practice of “taking envelopes” (filled with money) to slant a story whichever way a benefactor might want. These envelopmental types have also been accused of “going the extra mile” and attacking subjects on air, or in print – offering to stop only if said subjects paid them a higher price to do so. Failing to find a more reasonable resolution to this kind of blackmail, some subjects will turn to guns-for-hire for help.

It is not a simple reality, this. It’s a vicious cycle a minefield.

Is the Philippines a savage “badland” like the wild, wild West of old? It most definitely is not. But as in any other country, a lot more is found upon taking that multi-faceted coin and scratching through the surface. Beautiful tropical paradise and all.

Follow Marga Ortigas on Twitter: @margaortigas