Dismantling the culture of impunity

By Luis V. Teodoro
Professor of Journalism
College of Mass Communication
University of the Philippines

Member, Board of Advisers,
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

(This is a talk Prof. Teodoro delivered at the Press Freedom and Philippine Law Roundtable discussion sponsored by CMFR on December 5, 2006. The book Limited Protection: Press Freedom and Philippine Law, which Prof. Teodoro edited and in which he has an essay called “Understanding the Culture of Impunity” was launched.)

Dismantling the culture of impunity is not really as Quixotic as it sounds. Many of the steps needed to achieve that goal some media advocacy and journalists’ groups like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the National Union of Journalists have already taken, the killing of journalists and consequent problems having validated to some extent these groups’ efforts– among them engaging the law community and addressing the professional and ethical issues that afflict Philippine journalism– in enhancing the responsible exercise of press freedom.

For many media advocacy and journalists’ groups worldwide, the “culture of impunity” explains why journalists are surveilled, threatened, beaten, jailed, tortured, and killed, in some cases despite laws protective of press freedom.

Defined primarily as the way some societies ignore, permit or even encourage various forms of violence against journalists as well as their harassment and intimidation, and allow these to go unpunished, the culture of impunity has become a common phenomenon in many countries in the post 9/11 era. As has been widely observed, for example by the international free expression watchdog group International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), among the consequences of the events of September 11, 2001 was the reversal of an earlier trend, as the world moved into the 21st century, towards the liberalization of free expression.

The “culture of impunity” is today almost exclusively used to explain the continuing assassination of journalists in the Philippines. It is based on a paradox: its dominion is rooted in the weakness of the Philippine justice system. This weakness is the product of the synergy of a number of political, economic, and social factors. A crucial aspect of this weakness is the ineffective witness protection program which inhibits witnesses from coming forward, despite repeated police urging.

Most evident is the feeble will on the part of the political authority to protect citizens including journalists. But in the communities journalists claim to serve, the apathy of much of the citizenry is as plain. It is an apathy so pronounced it validates suspicions that the press’ own flaws have led to widespread skepticism over its claim that it is an invaluable public asset

Meanwhile, while there are many lawyers committed enough to free expression to offer their services to the families of slain journalists– which in the communities is no mean act of courage. But there do not seem to be enough press freedom advocates among lawyers to match the sheer number of journalist murders. In some communities this is a critical factor quite simply because, unable to rely on the justice system’s operating as a matter of course even in murder cases, the families of the slain need private prosecutors to see to it that their kin’s killers are brought to court.

While the synergy of these factors is what drives the culture of impunity, the key reason for the continuing killing of journalists is still the near-zero arrest, trial, and conviction of their killers.

In a report (“Elusive Justice”) for the Committee to Protect Journalists after a visit to Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur shortly after the murder of Edgar Damalerio in 2003, former CPJ Asian Bureau head Lin Neumann pointed out that “in another place, [the] crime might be relatively easy to solve. The victim was well known locally, and two witnesses were eager to come forward and talk to police. Plus, the shooting occurred across the street from the local police station.

“But Pagadian City isn’t your typical town,” Neuman went on. “A dusty trading port surrounded on one side by verdant hills dotted with coconut plantations and on the other by a gentle coastline interspersed with fishing villages, Pagadian City has the slapdash feel of a poor town where a very few people make quick money. While coconuts and rice may be the staple crops, smuggling and corruption, say the locals, are the real source of wealth for a small percentage of the population.

“Despite the town’s remote location, Damalerio’s murder drew condemnation within the country and abroad, and authorities in Manila, a world away from Pagadian City, say they are also trying to move the case along. In the Philippines, however, justice can be elusive. In the countryside, far from the capital, warlord politics, official corruption, and a breakdown in the justice system have contributed to the fact that 39 journalists have been murdered since democracy was restored in 1986-and all those cases remain officially unsolved.”

As is widely known in the Philippines, among the signs of the weakness-or the breakdown, as Neuman put it– of the justice system in the Philippines, whether in the countryside or its urban areas, is the police’s protecting suspected killers, or even their involvement in the killings which some local officials have been accused of masterminding.. This lethal combination results in a climate of fear to which even Department of Justice prosecutors are not immune.

It should be obvious, however, that this weakness is among the many consequences that result from a political system of patronage and corruption that rule the communities where most of the journalists have been killed. The existence of local centers of power with interests- among them corruption and/or such criminal activities as illegal gambling- in conflict with those of the public and which therefore have to be concealed; and, if they are not intimidated into passive acquiescence to wrong-doing, the consequent collusion of the police, prosecutors and even judges with these political and criminal interests.

Many of the murders of journalists have thus been traced to their reporting or commenting on official corruption, gambling, prostitution, smuggling, and other community issues. The very system they criticize, however, is what makes the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of their killers difficult and at times nearly impossible.

Most of the slain journalists cannot be accused of not doing journalism’s essential task of reporting and commenting on community concerns especially governmental performance. But one suspects that the apathy over the killings evident in many localities cannot be attributed to fear alone. That apathy is at least partly the result of perceptions that most journalists are, shall we say, less than perfect. Anyone who has had the good fortune of interacting with some journalists in some form or another-perhaps as a trainer in many of the continuing education programs in place in this country, for example, or as a practitioner, or both, or as a victim, or subject, rather, of their tender attentions — knows only too well the many professional and ethical problems that afflict the practice.

Too many journalists get involved in the quarrels of the strong, abandoning the non-partisanship essential to the journalistic enterprise in favor of, say, writing and distributing press releases for their patrons or using their radio programs to attack their patrons’ rivals. Their coming to harm once they’re perceived as partisan is only one of the consequences of ethical and professional failure, but not its worst outcome. That distinction certainly belongs to the resultant perception in many communities– developed over time and in the course of experience—that many journalists are not only partisan and corrupt; they don’t have much to say that’s of value to anyone else except themselves and their patrons either. Radio commentary is thus regarded as so much background noise that’s good for an occasional chuckle or so, but hardly worth thinking seriously about. As for print, some of its practitioners are not only so obviously in this or that interest’s payroll they might as well shout it to the rooftops. Other than predictable paeans to the wisdom of this or that politician, they don’t have much to say either.

These perceptions affect even those who’re trying their best to do their jobs as fairly, as honestly and as rigorously as possible. But because the most numerous are the noisiest and the most visible, the entire press community including its best practitioners suffers, most concretely in terms of public indifference to the murder of even its best and brightest.

The implications for the media advocacy and journalism communities are obvious. But I will nevertheless enumerate what I think are some of the measures needed to-possibly, hopefully and eventually–dismantle the culture of impunity.

1. Media advocacy and journalists’ organizations need to deepen and accelerate the continuing education of journalists, especially of the untrained or inadequately trained. But it is also necessary to engage journalism schools and the Commission on Higher Education to assist the effort to improve the professional and ethical training of future practitioners at the tertiary level. The same groups including journalism and communication schools must add media literacy planks to their training programs to educate the public on the essential role of the press in society as well as on the need for the public to monitor press performance and to demand observance of the press’ own values.

I am not saying that killers will hesitate to kill ethical and professional journalists precisely because they’re ethical and professional, but that the citizenry is likely to protect professionals who are assets to their communities, and, if they are murdered, to vigorously protest it and pressure government agencies to punish their killers.

2. As the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has been doing, other media advocacy and journalists’ groups need to engage the law community on at least two levels: initiating changes in the law curriculum towards the encouragement of free expression advocacy as suggested by Dean Pangalangan, and to work with the same community in the reform of those laws that affect the exercise of free expression, such as the libel law, the decriminalization of which is decades overdue.

3. Equally important, the press needs to even more rigorously monitor and hold the powerful to account, to give voice to the voiceless, to be fair, humane and just, and to defend its constitutionally protected freedom both through conscious advocacy as well as responsible practice.

If the journalism community’s experience with the murders that have haunted it since 1986 has a lesson to teach, it is no less than this basic imperative. Journalists need to do their jobs as professionally and as ethically as possible, and to engage the entire community in making sure the conditions for it exist. That I think is still the very bottom line.

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