Philippine journalists expect attacks to continue

AP News
Posted: Nov 29, 2009 3:48 AM

Several white wooden coffins _ all but one shut to hide the journalists' disfigured remains _ were crammed into a rundown funeral parlor in the southern Philippines, not far from where they were slaughtered with guns, machetes and a backhoe.

At least 30 journalists and their staff perished in the Nov. 23 massacre that killed 27 other civilians in the deadliest single attack on the media in the world. The carnage drew worldwide condemnations, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but few think the killings will stop.

The victims were in a convoy to cover a local politician's filing of his intention to run for governor in predominantly Muslim Maguindanao province when dozens of gunmen allegedly led by a political rival abducted and then butchered them en masse on a nearby hill. All 57 people were raked with gunfire at close range and their bodies were hacked up.

Some were pinned by a backhoe, which also dug their mass graves. The main suspect _ Andal Ampatuan Jr., the son of a political warlord _ has been detained in Manila and faces multiple murder charges.

Journalists in the Philippines say they face such dangers on a daily basis. Raging Muslim and communist rebellions, more than a million unlicensed guns, clan wars, rampant crime and weak law enforcement conspire to create one of the world's most hostile environments for journalists, according to newspaper publisher Ronald Mascardo.

"When I leave for work each day, there's only a 50-50 chance I can return alive," said the 37-year-old Mascardo, who lost a staffer to the killings. "It's like Russian roulette, using a six-shooter loaded with three bullets."

Last Monday's ambush nearly wiped out the news staff of a regional tabloid, Periodico Ini, which lost five staffers. Another tabloid, Gold Star Daily, lost four.

"This is the worst mass killing of journalists and media workers ever recorded," the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists told President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in a letter Friday, reminding her that 75 journalists had already been killed during the past eight years of her presidency.

That figure excludes last Monday's killings. Only four convictions have been secured by Arroyo's administration in the journalist killings, the media watchdog said.

"The international media community are grieving and distraught at the failure of the government ... to uphold its responsibility to protect our colleagues and to end the long-running culture of impunity," it said in the letter.

Arroyo has condemned the killings as "a supreme act of inhumanity" and vowed justice for the victims, but did not immediately respond to the watchdog's letter. At least four ranking police officers have been suspended and confined to camp while being investigated.

Arroyo's ruling party has also expelled Ampatuan, along with his brother and father _ long considered untouchable with close ties with the president. The Ampatuans helped Arroyo win the presidency in 2004 by delivering votes in Maguindanao, about 545 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban condemned the killings, expressing hope that "no effort will be spared to bring justice and to hold the perpetrators accountable."

Though the Philippines prides itself on having one of the freest presses in Southeast Asia, many journalists here say they face constant danger, and they don't expect even high-profile condemnations to stop the killings.

"I don't think anything has changed for these attacks to stop," Mascardo, the publisher, said.

Mascardo considered joining the other journalists on last Monday's trip, but decided not to go because he thought it was too dangerous.

Such calculations have saved him in the past in southern Mindanao, where journalists have been shot to death for exposing corruption and misdeeds, kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants or threatened by officials and outlaws.

At the wake for 10 of the journalists at a roadside funeral parlor in southern General Santos city, talk focused on their sudden loss and the horrific killings that left their families with an uncertain future.

Kristia Subang said her father, Ian Subang, worked late hours and woke before dawn as a newspaper publisher to put her through college. She said her father, a veteran journalist fondly loved by peers for his many jokes, was shot at least seven times.

"On the last night I saw him, he woke me up and gave me a pair of shoes I needed for school," Kristia, 18, said as she wiped the glass cover of her father's coffin with a cloth.

"He's so kind he never scolded me because he knew I cry easily," she said. "That's the man they took so senselessly from us."