MANILA, Philippines -- Journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates have joined hands in pushing for bolder measures to fight the culture of impunity that has allowed the ballooning number of journalists killed in the line of duty and made a mockery of press freedom and democracy in the country.
The campaign was launched at the end of a three-day international conference on "Impunity and Press Freedom" at The Peninsula Manila on Friday that brought together legal experts and press freedom advocates from Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Journalists, prosecutors, judges, and human rights advocates from such countries as Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Spain, the United States, Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia shared their experiences to help find solutions to the unabated and unsolved killings of "truth bearers" in the Philippines.
No less than Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno urged conference participants to unite "in defense of freedom of the press."
"We are the advocates, experts, journalists, and jurists coming from all over the world who share the same concern over the rampant human rights violations around us. I emphasize that it is 'we' who can do something, because we can better effect change not in our individual stations, but as a group working together," Puno said in his keynote address.
"It is the culture of impunity that encourages attacks on journalists. Unless and until we do something to submerge this pernicious culture, these attacks will continue to litter our collective consciousness with corpses of people who are bearers of truth," Puno said.
"Democracy in this country is under siege because bullets fired at the direction of journalists pierce not only human flesh, but also our republican ideals," he added.
The chief justice warned that "an enforced silence" about the situation "cannot but give impetus to its growing culture of impunity."
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), co-organizer of the conference, has listed 71 journalists killed in the line of duty since democracy was restored in the country in 1986. Of these, 54 were killed under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, although only 34 of the killings were considered work-related.
The State of Press Freedom Report 2007 prepared by CMFR noted that 90 percent of those killed had exposed corruption in government.
There have been few arrests, and zero conviction of the masterminds behind the murders, the CMFR noted.
"That's what impunity means," said Roby Alampay, executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), which also co-organized the conference with support from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Open Society Institute (OSI).
"It is a problem that we all must solve if Philippine democracy is to survive," he added.
The Philippine campaign against the culture of impunity is linked with the CPJ's global campaign against impunity which is initially focused on Russia and the Philippines.
The CPJ describes Russia and the Philippines as "two very different countries that share two traits: They are among the world's deadliest nations for journalists, and they are among the worst in solving these murders."
Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, said there is a "striking record of impunity" in both Russia and the Philippines.
According to CPJ statistics, the number of journalists killed in the line of duty in Russia has reached 47 while in the Philippines it is 32.
Both countries belong to the top five on the list of countries dubbed as "most murderous." Iraq leads the pack with 125. The two others are Algeria with 60 and Colombia, 40.
Research done by CPJ showed that murder is the leading cause of work-related deaths of journalists worldwide, accounting for around 73 percent of the 679 deaths recorded between January 1, 1992 and January 15, 2008.
Simon noted that "justice is served in less than 15 percent of these murder cases."
During the launch of the Philippine campaign last Friday, Simon said CPJ will continue to work with local organizations to monitor abuses against the press, to pressure the government to act, and to draw international attention to the situation in the Philippines.
Simon noted that as a result of previous efforts, "there is recognition at the highest level" of the problem although "I am not suggesting that government is doing enough."
Melinda Quintos De Jesus, CMFR executive director, said the stepped-up Philippine campaign against impunity will see more vigorous efforts at prosecution and strengthening cooperation with government agencies.
The State of Press Freedom Report 2007 observed that of the 34 work-related killings of journalists since 2001, only two have been resolved minus the masterminds; some 15 percent are under trial, another 15 percent dismissed for lack of evidence, 12 percent pending prosecution, and about 52 percent still under investigation.
"It is one of the sad ironies?as we celebrated the 22nd anniversary of the People Power revolution. The Philippines' free press -- side by side with human rights advocates -- is under the gun, and this crucial pillar of our democracy has remained vulnerable to lawlessness, weaknesses in the judicial system, and general apathy of the national government," lamented De Jesus.