CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—WHEN broadcaster James Licuanan was shot and seriously wounded a day after journalists nationwide commemorated the second anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre last year, Licuanan, or his assailants, wouldn’t have known that the case would validate what many in media have been saying all along—the culture of impunity lingers.
The attack on Licuanan is typical of the many cases of assaults on journalists in the Philippines that peaked after martial law under the rule of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but continued under the reign of her successor, who had vowed to be the opposite of Arroyo, President Aquino.
Licuanan was on the way home past 9 p.m. on Nov. 24 last year when two men sharing a motorcycle ride came and began firing their guns at him.
That Licuanan would be attacked, to people who knew him, had been a question of how and when, not why.
He had used his program, called Bombohanay Bigtime on radio network Bombo Radyo, to launch a flurry of attacks against crime syndicates that operated with impunity in Cagayan de Oro.
It was not a surprise that, soon enough, he would receive threatening text messages on his mobile phone. He didn’t take them seriously, though.
Licuanan is among few journalists who had been routinely attacking the operations of drug syndicates in Cagayan de Oro and elsewhere. Many others steered clear of the subject knowing all too well that it is a danger zone.
In October 2011, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) launched a campaign here to help journalists identify threats and their sources long before these take the form of motorcycle-riding assassins.
NUJP called it risk map and database. Pieces of information that could help journalists cope with threats are culled from the experiences of veteran and rookie print, TV and radio journalists.
Small groups of journalists are assembled and the discussion focuses on which subjects of news reporting are likely to become sources of threats, among them illegal drugs and illegal gambling.
After its launching here, the campaign has gone to three other cities—Zamboanga, Butuan and Kidapawan.
Feedback from the discussions were nearly identical in all four areas where the campaign was launched—reporting on corruption, crimes and political feuds are the biggest sources of threats to journalists.
See no evil
One troubling thought, however, also emerged from the discussions. Many journalists, especially those far from urban centers, believe that the best way to avoid threats, or physical harm, is simply to avoid reporting on subjects like crimes and corruption of officials.
While ways have been devised to protect local journalists, such as printing their stories without bylines, these have not guaranteed the safety of media men.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the source of threats when reporting on illegal activities,” a Zamboanga City TV reporter said.
“Often, police, local politicians, businessmen and criminal syndicates are in cahoots,” said the reporter, who requested anonymity.
Research work done by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has identified crime as one of two topics that generate threats to journalists reporting on them. The other one is corruption in government.
According to the CPJ, 35 percent of journalists killed worldwide since 1992 covered these two topics.
“Local reporters pay the highest price,” the CPJ said in a report.
“Nearly nine out of 10 journalists killed worldwide are journalists reporting on issues in their own community,” said the group. “Self-censorship in many nations is common because of extreme risks,” it said.
Journalists are likely to continue reporting on these subjects, however, despite the risks.
The CPJ report is backed by findings by the NUJP’s safety office. Consider these cases: In March 2009, radio journalist Nilo Labares was shot and seriously wounded in Cagayan de Oro. He had been commenting on illegal gambling. Rodge Cultura, a local ABS-CBN reporter, and Sassie Babar, a reporter of radio network RMN, have received threats for reporting on illegal logging in Butuan City. Licuanan’s case is the latest.
On Nov. 11, 2011, two media workers in General Santos City were killed—Alfredo Velarde Jr., circulation manager of a local newspaper, and Christopher Guarin, reporter of another local paper. Their killings are widely believed to be the work of crime syndicates in General Santos but police have yet to make progress in their investigation.
Among the things that make local journalists more vulnerable to attacks is the size of the news outfits that they belong to. Journalists in the provinces often work for small organizations that have little, or no, capacity to protect their staffers.
Often, journalists under threat have little or no support from their organizations. This led to another troubling idea that surfaced in the NUJP discussions—that journalists should arm themselves.
One encouraging result of the discussions is the commitment of journalists to keep reporting on so-called danger topics despite the risks of doing so.
Some of the possible protective measures identified in the NUJP campaign is to identify who among law enforcers can be trusted; collaborate on reports regarding so-called dangerous topics and establish links with civil society, church and other groups.
Top local media officials met in this city early this year to discuss another dangerous topic—illegal mining.
The discussion was prompted by threats received by Nef Luczon, former GMA 7 reporter who suffered harassment while doing a story on illegal mining in an upland village of this city. Following the threats, groups of journalists here decided that it was best to set aside professional rivalry and report on illegal mining together.
“The coverage has run for several weeks now but no other journalist has been threatened,” said Cong Corrales, freelance correspondent of several local and national media outfits.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.
(Editor’s Note: J.B. Deveza is an Inquirer Mindanao correspondent and coordinator of the NUJP Mindanao media safety office.)