It was a Monday I will never forget.
The early morning clime was sunny, warm, the roads decongested. About nine in the morning, my wife and I were halfway through our destination: Greenbelt 3 mall. That day, she was to receive the First Prize for a novel in Filipino she had submitted to a nationwide literary contest spearheaded by the National Book Development Board.
It was a day of great expectations, but none so tragic as the one we were about to face.
We lost no time rushing to the Makati newsroom of Dateline Philippines shortly after the awarding ceremonies. She worked there as writer and special assistant to the publisher, an early version of an online news portal. It had a ragtag team of correspondents, photojournalists and editors who met in a private duplex somewhere in Makati’s paved neighborhoods.
Around lunchtime, a phone call had reached us from Maguindanao.
The initial information was sketchy at best: a massacre of civilians and journalists, the exact numbers yet unknown, was carried out by hundreds of men along the road to Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao.
We were no strangers to the murder of our colleagues across the years, but the scale for which this one was carried out was infinitely shocking.
As the days turned into weeks, the massacre quickly proved to be the deadliest election-related slaughter in Philippine history: 58 dead, 33 of whom journalists. Media worker Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay of the Midland Review remains missing, according to the Fact-Finding Team.
Thirteen years and three presidents later, journalists are still being murdered in cold-blood, the more controversial being broadcaster Percy Lapid. He is one of three murdered media personalities under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The thing is, journalist killings are not mere coincidences. Under Ferdinand E. Marcos, 35 journalists were murdered; Corazon Aquino, 16; Fidel V. Ramos, 15; Joseph Estrada, 5; Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, 103 (the highest to date); Benigno Aquino III, 32; and Rodrigo Duterte, 25; and of late, Marcos Jr., 3. This is based on the running tally of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
A close look at the death toll culled by the Committee to Protect Journalists – 156 from 1992-2022 (197 since 1986 based on NUJP figures) – reveals a proximity closer to that of political “serial” killing if based on motive. It is not by accident or via a dangerous assignment in conflict zones that journalists get killed in the Philippines. In most cases, they were the targets.
How and why this atrocity goes on unchanged across several administrations is a problem we need to face and with a serious level of consistency.
Time and again we have been told how journalists are important in the exercise of the democratic process. Freedom of the press is invariably linked to the people’s right to know, thus any threat to the former is just as chilling to the latter.
Silencing journalists, either by bribes, murder, or intimidation, leaves the whole democratic discourse wounded in the knees, allowing only for “curated” information or propaganda to be spread. However, there is more to the murder of journalists than the dissemination of publicity.
In the age of disinformation, such as the one we have today, journalists play a crucial role in identifying narratives that are true as opposed to the bogus one. The lies powerful people put out there have now become sophisticated, refined, well-nigh difficult to analyze without the all-important context journalists provide.
What we largely call disinformation is, underneath it all, a psychological distortion. This does not only involve history. It also warps our sense of identity as individuals and a people. Red-tagging and the drug war accomplish this quite well by calling critics “terrorists” and the poor suspected of drug use as “animals”.
When these lies become the mainstream narrative, meaning, with the support of the many, then it is easier for unscrupulous officials to do to us as they please. In history, tyrants of all shapes and colors have imposed their twisted narratives on an unsuspecting public, either by word or deed, thereby justifying the violence and the corruption which follow.
The murder of journalists is no different. It imposes the belief that if you dare expose the truth, then you’re an enemy of the State. You are marked for death.
As we remember the victims of the Ampatuan massacre today, let us also remember all the journalists who are still alive, and despite the threats on their lives and their families, remain honest and vigilant.
“Liking” their posts or sharing what they wrote helps in strengthening the country’s beleaguered newshounds. “We will not forget” is not enough. The people’s open and consistent support for journalists is one of several ways we can #stopthekillings.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the author of several books of political nonfiction. He has sat for 11 years as editor-in-chief of one of the country’s foremost newsweekly and literary magazines and is currently the chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN Philippines.