OPINION: Lawyering for the killers of journalists

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Jun 01 2016 03:51 AM | Updated as of Jun 01 2016 05:32 AM

"Just because you're a journalist doesn't mean you're exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch."

That is President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, explaining why journalists are murdered in this country, still one of the world’s most dangerous for the practice of journalism.

In February, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) ranked the Philippines as the world’s second most deadliest place for media workers.  

We are second only to Iraq, where at least 309 journalists have been killed in recent years. Mexico, which is facing a grave challenge from narcotics cartels, placed third.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) states 174 journalists have been killed since the EDSA Revolution threw out a dictatorship in 1986. Only 10 suspects have been convicted.

Duterte gave his analysis on the murders of journalists in the course of a press conference that gave much glimmer of hope for other burning social issues. Among these – corruption and the links between public servants and crime.

The President-elect believes most murdered Filipino journalists were corrupt. They were killed, he says, because they extorted bribes from news subjects yet continued attacking their victims. Upright journalists do not get killed in this country, he insists.

It’s a worldview that chills the blood.

Lost in translation?

His supporters rushed to his defense, insisting (again) that he was being misinterpreted and that a hostile media was trying to "spin" the story in the worst possible light.

I listened several times to the entire exchange. There was no misinterpretation.

The President-elect’s harangue started with a question raised by a Davao-based journalist: “What is your policy about journalist killings that the Aquino government failed to act (on)?”

Mr. Duterte’s first lines were: “Alam mo hija, ganito yan. Kung papatayin ka, papatayin ka talaga. (It’s like this: If someone’s out to kill you, then he’ll kill you.) There is no way to know that the next victim will be a journalist.”

Nothing much that’s wrong with it, given the President-elect’s penchant for sacrastic returns. And then it unravels.

“Sa karamihan, pranka-pranka, may nagawa yan. Kasi hindi ka naman papatayin dyan kung wala kang ginawa, eh.” (Let’s be frank. The victims did something. They won’t kill you if you’ve done nothing wrong.)

That’s a sweeping, startling statement. Do we blame 174 slain journalists for their murders?

Duterte earlier said he would not come after his critics. At yesterday’s press conference, he tried to make a distinction between the targets of negative news reports and commentaries, and also the type of criticism hurled.

“Yung mga exposé, bad words against us, wala yan. Ako, I’ve been mayor (shrugs)… kaming mga politiko, okay yan… praktisado kami .. pero may mga tao … you go private, tapos hiyain mo ang anak, babuyin mo, papatayin ka talaga.” (Exposé and bad words are nothing to us politicians. We’re used to that. But if you attack a private individual and shame or humiliate his child, you will really get killed.)

Mr. Duterte focused on one slain journalist – the late Jun Pala from his city. One case, to explain why people think journalists are fair targets for killing in the Philippines.

“Pero karamihan dyan, alam nyo na, nabigyan na tapos… especially if you want to take sides. Nabayaran mo (news target) na tapos you (journalist) play. Yan ang karamihan namamatay. Or tumatanggap na sa mga sugarol, tapos bira pa rin. You really want the truth, yun ang truth.”

(Most of them (victims), you know that they’ve accepted bribes … they’ve been paid, but they still play and take sides. That’s the reason why most were killed. Say, accepting money from gambling lords, and still attacking them.)

“There is still corruption sa inyong side. Marami iyan. Hindi lang … ang binibigyan niyan, hindi lang police. Yun si Pala, binibigyan yan, kumokolek, harap-harapan kung sabihin, kumolekta kami. Tapos sa kabila, babanatan mo ako. Yun, that is the best example kung bakit namamatay itong mga journalists.”

He claims Pala openly boasted about collecting but continued to attack.

Then he reiterates: “Kasi kung journalist ka lang na tama, wala man gagalaw sa iyo.” (If you are a good journalist, nobody will touch you.)

“Especially if it (exposé) is true. You cannot hide the truth, by the way…I do not diminish memory but he was a rotten son of a bitch. He deserved it.”

When the reporter said being bad journalism ethics was no excuse for murder, the President-elect replied.

“That is the reason. You are asking why… that is the reason. Now, sinabi mo hindi dabat, you have to debate with the killer, not me. Of course I know who killed them. Kasi binastos nya yung tao eh.”

He even mentions that the supposed killer cried over Pala’s attacks. And he continues with the lecture:

“Most of you are clean. But do not expect that all journalists are clean.” He then repeats that slain journalists received bribes and yet continued attacking, much like an extended extortion scheme.

Above the law?

Mr. Duterte just threw “law” into the trash pit.

“It’s not because you’re a journalist, you are exempted from assassination Ang premise mo kasi, journalist sya, bakit papatayin sya. (You’re premise is, he’s a journalist so he shouldn’t be murdered.) It’s all wrong.

Kasi kung journalist ka lang na tama, walang gagalaw sa yo (the third repetition of the view that “good” journalists don’t get murdered) …Yung freedom of expression will not save you if you have done something wrong to the guy. Do not believe it hook, line and sinker, that freedom of expression will save you.”

“Just because you are a journalist you are not exempted from assassination. If you are a son of a bitch… ako praktisado. Humanap ka ng sundalo, sabihin mo ang asawa mo kaliwete, papatayin ka. Subukan mo, hindi yan madala ng free speech yan, hija. The Constitution can no longer help you pag binaboy mo ang ibang tao.”

(I’m practised. But you try to find a soldier and tell him his wife has cuckolded him; he will kill you. Try it; free speech won’t save you. The Constitution can’t help you if you humiliate people.)

No reporter present at the press conference claimed journalists were beyond the pale of law. No media group has ever advanced that claim.

Mr. Duterte is a lawyer. He knows very well that slander and libel remain crimes under the Philippine Penal Code -- despite journalists’ campaign to decriminalize there. In fact, there are tougher penalties for Internet libel under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.

Extortion is also a crime. Filipino journalists have been caught, charged and jail for that.

If, indeed, the late Pala tried to extort and committed libel and slander, there were laws available for the injured party.

The President-elect, a former prosecutor, admits he knew Pala’s killer; he is sympathetic at the insult born and the tears the man shed.

He knew the killer and did nothing. And the context is clear: He did nothing because he felt the killer had an excuse for murder.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.