Welcome to The Philippines, the "most murderous country in the world" for journalists

MANILA — The assassins made sure Ernesto Rollin was dead.

The first volley of gunfire sent him reeling to the ground, bloodied. His companion, a woman identified in reports as Ligaya, had walked ahead while Rollin parked his motorcycle. She was startled by the gunshots. She turned around and ran toward Rollin, now slumped on the pavement. But one of the gunmen stopped Ligaya, pointed his gun at the fallen journalist and fired one more bullet into the back of his neck.

Rollin’s assassination is a scene that is being replayed throughout the Philippines with alarming frequency, further cementing the country’s reputation as “the most murderous” country in the world for journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Rollin, 40, was the first Filipino journalist murdered this year. Seven were killed in 2008. And it looks like the violence is not going to stop soon.

Less than a week after Rollin’s murder, another journalist, Ronaldo Doong, was attacked in Digos City, in the southern Philippines. Luckily for Doong, the gunman’s weapon jammed, and he and a companion managed to escape death.

On Mar. 5, Nilo Labares, another radio journalist in Cagayan de Oro City, also in the southern Philippines, was ambushed by gunmen. The motive for the attack was unclear. Labares is known for his hard-hitting on-air commentary that often poked fun at politicians and public figures.

These attacks, and the ones before them — 99 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since 1986, the year the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was notorious for human rights abuses and for jailing journalists, was deposed — have unnerved Filipino journalists for years.

Most of the victims are in the provinces where journalists, although relatively free to air or publish whatever they want, have to contend with warlords, politicians and criminal syndicates. In these communities, particularly where governance is weak, people turn to journalists, oftentimes radio commentators, who can be shrill and rambunctious in their commentary and reports.

Tonette Orejas, a journalist in the province of Pampanga, knows only too well the trouble a journalist can get into. For three years, she carried two weapons in her purse — a .40-caliber Glock and a .22-caliber pistol — after she received death threats for an investigative story she wrote on a Filipino politician for Newsbreak, a news magazine.


Orejas recently stopped carrying the guns after the threats, which came via phone calls or text messages, subsided. “There is no immediate and real danger to me right now,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday.

But for the past three years, she lived on the edge. “A journalist’s life in the Philippines is never normal,” Orejas said. The guns, she said, provided security and comfort. “I didn’t want to be a sitting duck." Thankfully, she was not attacked and never had to use the weapons.

Orejas isn't alone in taking these measures. Joel Sy Egco, a reporter for Manila Standard-Today, a Manila-based newspaper, has founded a journalist group called ARMED (Association of Responsible Media), which provides gun training to journalists.

“We must train and be vigilant because our attackers would pounce when we least expect it,” Egco said. He believes that once assassins know that their target could be armed, they would think twice.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines views the rise of ARMED as a symptom of the failure by the authorities to stop the killings by prosecuting successfully not just the assassins but the planners behind them. Although the police have arrested suspects in a few of the cases, the conviction rate is low and not one mastermind has been brought to justice. Moreover, several suspects in these killings were police officers.

Then there’s impunity, which is worsened by the fact that extrajudicial killings in the Philippines are not limited to journalists. All over the country, leftist activists, human-rights advocates, farmers and peasants, even minors suspected of having committed petty crimes, have been assassinated. The situation has alarmed human-rights groups here and abroad, with some saying that the abuses have become worse than those during the Marcos dictatorship.

The U.S. State Department, in its 2008 report on human rights expressed concern over the killings. “Arbitrary, unlawful, and extrajudicial killings by elements of the security services and political killings, including killings of journalists, by a variety of actors continued to be major problems,” the Feb. report said. Although the number of killings and disappearances dropped dramatically in recent years, “concerns about impunity persisted.”

To many journalists, the atrocities have forced them to reevaluate their commitment to the career. “Oftentimes, I would wonder if this is all worth it,” said Orejas. “But I always end up telling myself that journalism is my life and damn if I allow my enemies to take that away from me, silence me, or to even kill me.”

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