WHETHER working amid the backdrop of conflict or peace, journalists in Mindanao are having it the worst — getting killed, attacked, abducted, charged with libel and, in at least one instance, even declared as persona non grata.

The latest to be killed from the region was Dennis Cuesta, station manager of dxMD-Radyo Mindanao Network (RMN) in General Santos City, shot near the Gaisano Mall in broad daylight last August 4. Cuesta succumbed five days later from the five gunshot wounds he sustained in the attack.

Cuesta’s killing brought the number of murdered journalists in General Santos City at seven, the highest death toll in any given locality in the country under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This is according to the latest data from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) media safety office.

Arroyo’s term has so far seen the cold-blooded murder of 60 journalists, almost twice the combined casualty count during the three post-Marcos administrations before her — Corazon Aquino (17), Fidel Ramos (15), and Joseph Estrada (5).

Speaking at the PCIJ-Newsbreak seminar on “Reporting on Conflict and Peace: The Story of Mindanao,” Rowena Paraan, NUJP secretary-general, also pointed to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as a dangerous place for journalists, citing the killings of Gene Boyd Lumawag (MindaNews) in Jolo, Sulu in 2004; Vicente Sumalpong (Radyo ng Bayan) in Tawi-Tawi and Hernani Pastolero (Lightning Courier) in Shariff Kabunsuan in 2007.

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Based on reports submitted by journalists, Paraan disclosed that over a dozen unreported cases of physical attacks, grave threats, abduction, ambush, and bomb attacks happened in Cotabato City, the political center of ARMM, from 1989 to 1993.

Besides the killings, assaults and libel suits, journalists, Paraan said, are also being declared persona non grata, as in the recent case of Zamboanga City journalist Al Jacinto for an article he wrote on the abandoned memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain between the Arroyo government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). She said similar incidents have been reported in the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro and are becoming a common weapon for local executives who find the reports not to their liking.

Why all this is happening, Paraan could only attribute to the seeming culture of impunity that allows those who commit such crimes to remain unpunished. Out of the 97 cases of killings, she said, only five have resulted in convictions, with not a single mastermind prosecuted or sent to jail, including the two cases of Marlene Esperat and Edgar Damalerio that were supposed to be “victories for us.”

Though she acknowledged that many of the incidents directly have a bearing on how journalists do their work, Paraan said the issue of ethics is only part of the problem.

The whole situation of Philippine journalists, she said, is encapsulated in the following statement: “There can be no press freedom when journalists exist in conditions of poverty, corruption and fear.”

To address the situation, Paraan urged journalists not only to undergo safety and security trainings, but also to unite and promote ethical and critical reporting.

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