The perils of reporters in the Philippines

Some Philippine journalists are beginning to feel like members of an endangered species. The National Press Club here counted 10 murders of provincial journalists between March and August of this year. That brings to 25 the number of journalist deaths in the Philippines since 1979. Most of the 25 reportedly took part in exposing government officials' alleged corruption.

The press club also lists two journalists as having disappeared. One of them, Tim Olivarez, who has not been seen since last February, exposed an alleged smuggling syndicate said to be enjoying protection from high government officials.

``If we don't get censored, we're libeled. Worse, we're even killed,'' press club director Sheila Coronel said.

The press club recently asked President Ferdinand Marcos for an investigation into the killings. In response, Mr. Marcos asked the military to form a special committee to look into the situation.

So far, five of the 25 cases are said to have been solved and the military has announced that some suspects have been arrested. The only known conviction was handed down in August to a soldier sentenced, in absentia, to 20 years imprisonment. But, by National Press Club accounts, he managed to escape from jail three months before the conviction.

Roger Flaviano, editor of the Davao-based People's Daily Forum, said provincial journalists have found themselves in the middle of a sticky situation -- right on the battlefield of a major propaganda war.

He said that in Davao City, both the military and the New People's Army, the armed group of the Philippine Communist Party, ``try to coerce the local media men to air their respective views.''

The military has classified Davao, a southern city, as the ``laboratory'' of communist insurgents as well as of Marcos's counterinsurgency program. ``Both operations [insurgency and counterinsurgency] are largely fought in the area of propaganda,'' Mr. Flaviano said.

A survey conducted by the National Press Club said that ``suggestions on the treatment of specific stories are received daily'' from the government. One editor said that, in some cases, Marcos himself ``suggests'' news treatment.

The President's influence is apparently felt in other ways as well. Three national morning newspapers are owned by Marcos's friends and relatives.

Bulletin Today, the largest daily (circulation estimated at 250,000 to 300,000), is believed to be owned by Emilio Yap, a shipping magnate close to the President. The Daily Express is published by sugar baron Roberto Benedicto, said to be a close friend of Marcos's, and the Times Journal is run by Benjamin Romualdez, brother of Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

But an opposition press is allowed in this country, and a ``loosening up'' of the press has been observed recently -- mostly in metropolitan Manila since the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. The public's demand for stories on the assassination and its aftermath brought pressure on the ``establishment press'' to print stories somewhat critical of the government.

A boycott of the three ``crony-owned'' dailies in September 1983, following Mr. Aquino's assassination, also bit into the circulations of the Times Journal and the Daily Express. As a result, the so-called ``alternative press'' sprung to life.

The circulation of Malaya, an opposition paper, increased to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000. (``Malaya'' is a Tagalog word meaning ``free.'')

A team of American journalists who visited the country last year to look into the news media situation concluded that the Philippine press exercises ``brinkmanship,'' often testing the limits to its freedom. But the team found that the relative freedom that Filipino journalists enjoy is not guaranteed to continue.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.