(PDI Editorial) Bandit nation

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:09:00 12/06/2008

When Leo Luna Mila was gunned down, he became the first media practitioner in Northern Samar and the second in the Eastern Visayas region to be murdered (the first, Ramon Noblejas, was shot and killed in Tacloban City on Oct. 4, 1987 in a case that remains unsolved); and the eighth journalist to be killed in the country this year. (Prior to Mila’s murder, Radio dxRS commentator Arecio Padrigao was the latest fatality, shot dead on Nov. 17.)

The police seem pretty certain Mila was killed due to his work as a journalist: he had recently discussed allegations of anomalies involving money collected from the parents of students in a local school. The police said they were bringing in two teachers from that school for questioning. But everything is police speculation at this point, since they have no immediate suspects and no witnesses have come forward.

In our nation of damaged institutions—where officialdom is often blind, mute and deaf when it comes to the concerns of the public—media have essentially served as a court of last resort, bringing allegations of official wrongdoing to the bar of public opinion. In the major metropolitan areas of the country, where the public, media and officials generally subscribe to the notion that the give-and-take and push-and-pull of debating public issues in public fora are normal, the chances that media exposés will result in fatalities are slight.

But what is actually more relevant is whether media, officials and the public operate in areas where the free exchange of ideas is a tradition or they operate in areas where a culture of impunity reigns. The reason more media people are murdered outside the major metropolitan areas, particularly outside the National Capital Region, is that out there, the feeling of impunity of those responsible for the murders is well nigh absolute.

We are aware that certain sectors, particularly those protective of embattled officials, insist that there may be more to these crimes than attempts to kill free speech. There is much talk of freedom requiring responsibility, of some murdered journalists being highly accomplished extortionists, and so forth.

However, the remedy for such abuses is to go to the courts, though it is only fair to point out that so long as libel is considered a criminal act, going to court as a remedy invites other abuses of our institutions by those in power. That is why we have called for a review of our obsolete laws on libel, and why we have also questioned the proposed legislation to give those who hold political offices an unreasonable right of reply in the media.

The antidote to lies and slander is the truth. The best protection against media people who abuse their profession is to provide a level of public service that is conspicuous in its integrity and accountability. The public listens and laps up the exposés of journalists because, in the first place, their revelations strike a familiar chord—such as, accusations known to be based on facts, or borne out by widespread experience with official abuses.

There is simply no justifiable reason to resort to killing a journalist—whatever his/her reputation. The murder may silence him/her, but it also makes iron-clad his/her accusations, whether resolved or not: that the journalist had to die means there was no other way to disprove his/her allegation. It suggests that the journalist must have been on to something, and that there was no other defense for the culprits behind the anomaly but to murder him/her.

Media murders underscore the thinking of a significant minority in our society that they live beyond the pale of the law, even if they themselves belong to local or national institutions that supposedly exist for the maintenance of public order and the common good.

At a time when all sorts of proposals are being made by officials themselves—greater autonomy for regions and provinces, increased fiscal control of local funds and projects, and even a shift in the system of our government, among others—the public must ask itself whether the record of these officials merits greater freedoms.

For if they perpetually complain about the abuse of freedom by people armed only with their pens or voices, how about the abuse of authority and utter disregard for the principle of accountability by officials who turn a blind eye to media murders or who have a hand in media murders themselves?

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