Malacañang on Monday downplayed a Committee to Protect Journalists report that identified the Philippines as the deadliest peacetime nation for the news profession.
In a text message to reporters, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the CPJ report may be exaggerated. "The claim that the Philippines is deadliest for journalists may be a bit of an exaggeration. You can also take that as a positive indication of the bravery and dedication of Filipino journalists that they are willing to make the supreme sacrifice in the altar of press freedom," Remonde said in a text message to reporters.
Remonde said President Arroyo recently met with leaders of Philippine media to discuss how to ensure better protection of journalists.
Deputy presidential spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said the formation of the Legislative Caucus on Rights and Free Expression, which is a new regional body of the ASEAN to promote press freedom, is in line with the administration's efforts to ensure press freedom and safety of journalists.
"We are working very hard to improve human rights conditions, not only for journalists but for all Filipinos. The drop in the death toll shows that it can be done and that we are moving in the right direction," Fajardo said.
The CPJ on Monday said at least 24 cases of murders of journalists in the Philippines remain unsolved in the past decade, making the country the deadliest peacetime nation for the press.
CPJ Impunity Campaign Coordinator Elisabeth Witchel said the Philippines ranked sixth in the CPJ's Impunity Index, which assesses the safety and protection of journalists worldwide.
The first five nations on the Index -- Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Colombia -- have endured years of armed conflict while the Philippines is considered a peacetime democracy.
Witchel said cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained.
The Impunity Index, which was compiled for the second year in a row, calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population from the years 1999 through 2008. Only nations with five or more unsolved cases are included in the index, a threshold reached by 14 countries this year.
Shawn Crispin, CPJ Senior Representative for Southeast Asia, said the Index should serve as a wake-up call to the Arroyo government to do more in solving the murders of journalists in the country.
"The Philippines, with its exceptionally high rate of killings of journalists and especially low rate of prosecutions, has long been a poster-child of impunity in the global context. Our research shows that the impunity rate in killed journalists' cases here still hovers above 90 percent, one of the highest in the world," he said.
Crispin said the high rate of unsolved journalists' murders in the Philippines "encouraged repeated and sustained attacks against the press here."
The Philippine National Police (PNP) earlier said it is forming tracker teams to hunt down 27 people involved in journalists killings.
National police chief Director General Jesus Verzosa said the tracker teams from the police's Task Force Usig, which was formed to solve the killings of journalists and activists, will be activated pursuant to President Arroyo's order to hasten the arrest of wanted suspects.
Mrs. Arroyo told the PNP recently to come up with a reward system for the capture of most wanted persons around the country.
Verzosa said that based on Task Force Usig's data, there have been 31 cases of journalist killings since 2001.
The task force has filed 26 cases against 64 suspects, Verzosa said. Of the 64 suspects, the task force said 17 have been arrested, 10 surrendered, four have been convicted, three were killed in clashes, and 27 are at-large.
Director Raul Bacalzo, Task Force Usig commander, said among the suspects involved in the killing of journalists were a communist rebel, two from the military, four policemen, two former town mayors and 17 civilians.
Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome, Philippine National Police spokesman, said the police organization has been coordinating with different media organizations to identify journalists who are under threat due to the nature of their profession.
Bartolome said the PNP is also planning to hold security trainings for journalists who are under threat.
He said the police are willing to provide threatened journalists with security depending on the result of the PNP's risk assessment. With a report from David Dizon,abs-cbnNEWS.com