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Ate Glow in Hot Water
Journalist at risk

Reporting under the gun

Mei Magsino escaped the wrath of the alleged jueteng lord who is also Batangas governor.

FEARING FOR HER LIFE. Journalist Mei Magsino-Lubis is on the run, fleeing threats from the most powerful man in her province.

MELINDA ‘MEI’ Magsino-Lubis yearns for many things: her flower and herb garden, the sound of her husband’s voice, the kingfisher and maya birds that used to wake her up in the morning. All these she used to enjoy in her five-hectare mahogany farm on top of a hill, in the city of Batangas, around 84 km. south of Manila.

Even now her farm beckons to her like the smell of freshly brewed barako coffee. “It was paradise,” she says, “and it was my home.”

But the farm — and husband — will have to wait, because Magsino-Lubis wants to live. She is convinced that had she not fled from Batangas one night last July she would now be dead.

Magsino-Lubis is a correspondent of the Philippine Daily Inquirer for the Southern Luzon region and has been reporting on alleged irregularities in the Batangas provincial capitol. She believes her life is now in danger because her stories have angered the provincial governor, whom she has linked to questionable projects, among other things.

The governor is Armando C. Sanchez. In Senate hearings probing jueteng, he was alleged to be one of the biggest operators of the illegal numbers game in the country. He also faces a graft case filed in the Office of the Ombudsman by his vice governor. Recently, the influential Roman Catholic Church leadership in Batangas openly declared its lack of confidence in the governor. (See sidebar) Yet, while he has the demeanor of a street toughie, Sanchez does not have a reputation for resorting to violence when dealing with his perceived enemies — at least not among the general public.

But that is getting way ahead of Magsino-Lubis’s story.

Phoned warning

At around 10 in the evening of July 7 this year, Magsino-Lubis received a phone call from one of her police sources. She was told two prisoners from the provincial jail had just been released, with specific orders to kill her. She would have to leave Batangas immediately, her source said.

That same night, Magsino-Lubis said goodbye to her family and left the farm, her home for only nine months, and Batangas, where she has lived for all her 30 years. “Doon ako tinubuan ng sungay (That’s where I grew horns),” Magsino-Lubis says of her province. “But I did not have a choice (other than to leave).” In her backpack, she tucked five tops, three pairs of jeans, six pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, documents, photographs, notepads, pens, and about P22,000 in cash. In her bones ran a cold, steady stream of fear.

Not too long ago, Magsino-Lubis had felt relatively safe, since, she says, her employer was not some small, obscure community paper, but the country’s biggest daily. “Ang yabang ko noon (I was so confident then),” she says. Now she realizes she is — and has always been — as vulnerable as all the other journalists who had been hunted down and killed in some remote town.

At least one international media watchdog has described the Philippines as “the most murderous of all” when it comes to media deaths, beating even those countries where drug lords reign or civil strife rages. Since 1986, 54 Filipino journalists have been killed in the line of duty. Most of them were broadcasters working outside Metro Manila, and at the time of their deaths reporting or commenting on irregularities in their local governments. Of these cases, only two have resulted in the convictions of the assassins, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). No mastermind has ever been found and prosecuted.

It is probably no comfort to Magsino-Lubis that elsewhere in the world, journalists who are killed often do not die while covering armed conflicts or some similar assignment. Instead, says the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), which studied more than five years of journalists’ death records from 2000, a huge majority are murdered in retaliation for their work.

In Batangas itself, journalist Arnel Manalo was killed just last year, on August 5, when two men on a motorcycle ambushed him while he was on his way home on his jeep. He was shot twice, the bullets hitting the left side of the face and his neck.

Manalo was a correspondent for the radio station DZRH and wrote a column for the local newspapers Dyaryo Veritas and Southern Tagalog. He did not mince words in his columns, at one point calling the governor “berdugo ng kapitolyo (tyrant of the capitol)” a month before he was killed, and also saying there was an “atmosphere of fear” among capitol employees in a follow-up piece.

But Manalo was a member of the As-is barangay council as well, which was why the CMFR, in its report about his death, did not rule out political rivals as among the masterminds for his killing. Manalo’s family filed a case against someone said to be the triggerman; the case is still at the prosecutor’s office. The primary witness was another journalist, who testified that he heard the alleged triggerman planning the killing with the barangay captain, about whom Manalo had also written in the last two weeks of July 2004. The family did not file a case against the barangay captain.

Murdered ombudsman

Magsino-Lubis, however, only has to think of Guillermo Gamo to feel particularly vulnerable. They had agreed to have a meeting on May 31. Gamo, who was the Batangas provincial ombudsman, had promised to talk to her and give her documents related to what he said were anomalous deals involving provincial officials. But the day before they were supposed to meet, Gamo was killed on his way to work. According to the police, two gunmen ambushed his vehicle as it took a turn at a junction in barangay Balagtas in the capital. The gunmen fired at least 16 shots, then entered the ombudsman’s vehicle and took his briefcase before speeding off on a motorcycle. “That briefcase was for me,” says Magsino-Lubis.

In the days immediately following Gamo’s death, her sources among the capitol’s employees avoided her phone calls and stopped answering her text messages. She tried to visit Gamo’s office, but she could not even get close as employees, from a distance, shooed her away. “They were so scared,” Magsino-Lubis says, adding that she could hardly blame them. She herself does not pretend she isn’t afraid. “Tell me,” she says, “how you’d feel if you know you’re next.”

Just a few months before Gamo’s death, Magsino-Lubis had been in pure wedded bliss. She and her husband, a businessman, were married only in October last year. She had taken a couple of months off before going back to work and discovered she had a flair for farming. She even began experimenting with organic methods, and took pride in the variety of herbs and flowers she was able to grow. But she remained foremost a journalist, and she was soon back dispatching stories about agriculture, the environment, crime, and other subjects.

Her plan was, to her mind, very simple: farm in the mornings, do journalism in the afternoons, and come home in the evenings, to her husband and Mochtar, the boy they planned on having as soon as possible, a son they would name after the famous Indonesian journalist. “It was all going to be good and easy,” Magsino-Lubis says of the life she and her husband were preparing for. But those plans have had to be put on hold.

Slapped with a lawsuit

On July 5, Governor Sanchez filed an oral defamation case against Magsino-Lubis, a case the prosecutor elevated promptly to the Batangas Regional Trial Court. Sanchez accused her of being disrespectful to him during an interview at the capitol the day before. The mayors’ league also adopted a resolution declaring her persona non grata for the same reasons cited in the governor’s claim.

Magsino-Lubis, however, says it was in fact the governor who had verbally abused her while she was trying to ask him about a computerization project the capitol would be undertaking. A few minutes into the interview, she says, she had already realized that Sanchez was very agitated. She was still taking notes when the cuss words began to rain on her head. “I lost count how many times he cursed me,” she says.

Sanchez filed the oral defamation case on the same day her report about the computerization project came out in the Inquirer. The article, which Magsino-Lubis co-wrote with another reporter, discussed the P350-million project that will fully computerize Batangas’s real-property taxation system. The report raised questions about the conduct of the bidding process, and offered the theory — based on corporate and other documents — that the governor himself was the owner of the company that clinched the contract. Sanchez has since denied this.

In hindsight, Magsino-Lubis notes that her fateful interview with the governor took place while Senate witnesses were pointing to Sanchez as among those who should be summoned to the hearings to explain their supposed involvement in jueteng operations. Magsino-Lubis herself had repeatedly reported on the governor’s alleged jueteng connection, but public interest in the issue and the personalities involved was particularly high while the congressional inquiry was going on. It was not surprising then, she says, that Sanchez had become increasingly edgy about reports on him and his work at the capitol.

Still, Magsino-Lubis did not expect that the governor would file a case against her, or that the case would be brought immediately to court without any preliminary investigation. She was not even given a chance to file a counter-affidavit. Two days later, she received that dire call from one of her sources, who also informed her that she was to be finished off when she appeared before the court to post bail. “The case was meant to make me surface at a particular time and place so they could kill me,” says Magsino-Lubis.

Her editors at the Inquirer have since provided her with legal assistance, and lawyers have filed for her a motion to dismiss Sanchez’s suit.

Paranoia and distrust

As far as she can tell, the threat to her life is not the subject of any official police investigation. The governor himself, in a written reply to PCIJ’s queries, implies there is no reason for her to be on the run, since there is no one after her. A few of her colleagues in Batangas and Manila are also unsympathetic, although that seems more because Magsino-Lubis tends to come off as blowhard and rather self-righteous to some people. But Magsino-Lubis says that a day after she fled Batangas, she received another call from another source, who told her exactly what the first caller had said. She recalls telling her second informant, “If I had waited for your call, I’d be dead by now.”

She says she had no time to go to the local police to report the threat and have it put on the blotter. Besides, she says, she did not trust the Batangas police at the time. She has, however, managed to submit a letter about her situation to Task Force Gamo, which was formed to investigate the ombudsman’s death, as well as to Philippine National Police Director General Arturo Lomibao. She has been told by Task Force Gamo, however, that it lacks funds to include her case in its investigation.

Months later, Magsino-Lubis has yet to get used to life on the run. Home for a week could be a posh condominium unit owned by a godparent. For the next, a studio leased by a friend, and the next, a musty room in a youth hostel. She had practically mapped out the rest of her life with her husband, and now she cannot make plans beyond a few days. She says the paranoia she is forced to have is torture, although the greatest casualty so far has been her ability to trust people. There was one time she was enjoying a garden show with one of her “foster mothers” when a woman recognized her and asked, “‘Di ba ikaw si Mei Magsino, taga-Inquirer (Aren’t you Mei Magsino, from the Inquirer)?” The very same day she left to find another temporary sanctuary.

Another time she had engaged the security guard of the condominium where she was staying in a friendly chat. The guard mentioned a “governor” who was frequenting the building to visit a friend. Magsino-Lubis pressed the guard for more details, and was told it was a “Governor Sanchez.” Magsino-Lubis ran all the way to the unit she was occupying, grabbed her things, and was soon on the street looking for another place to stay.

But even as she runs, she has not stopped doing her job. She has been able to file a few stories since leaving Batangas, doing research, speaking to sources by phone or meeting up with them. Once she has all her materials ready, she finds an Internet café where she writes her pieces and then submits them by email. She says she has not been back in Batangas since she left the province, contrary to claims by the governor that she has even been seen window-shopping there.

Magsino-Lubis says she is tired, of course. She wants to be able to use her own name again whenever she checks into an inn, a hotel, a hostel. She longs to be able to walk the streets without having to wear a baseball cap. When she sits in a café, she wants to enjoy her cup of barako without having to keep looking at the door every time someone comes in.

For now, however, it has to be this way if she wants to be able to go back alive to Batangas and her husband. After all, the subject of her investigations is no longer the college dean who told her — the editor-in-chief of the school paper — that she would not be allowed to graduate unless she donated a karaoke to the dean’s office. This time around, whether or not she is right about who wants her dead, there is no doubt that she is up against a far more powerful figure. But Magsino-Lubis says, “Politicians can only stay so long in office. I’ll be a journalist forever.”

A jueteng past

It’s actually rather ironic that she came to writing exposés on jueteng, since her maternal grandfather was one of the game’s operators. She has vivid childhood memories of policemen knocking on their door at two in the morning to “collect.” She recalls, “My lolo would give P5,000. The police would leave with a goat in tow as well.”

Her mother was an avid jueteng player, too, placing bets every morning. But that was then. Now Magsino-Lubis’s mother no longer plays the game, concentrating instead on running the family restaurant and pig farm. Magsino-Lubis says her parents and four siblings are among her sources of courage. She says, “My family has three words for me: ‘Kaya mo ‘yan (You can do it)’.”

She is also reassured that her case is being watched closely by local organizations such as the CMFR and the Philippine Press Institute, as well as international groups like the CPJ and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange. She is hoping, she says, that letting more people know about the threats against her will lessen the chances of her being hurt.

In addition, Magsino-Lubis is able to count on the support of the Church. Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles had offered her refuge months ago, suggesting she go to the Canossa convent in Lipa. But Magsino-Lubis, while grateful for the gesture, did not want to be cloistered. “I wouldn’t be able to work there,” she says. The mere thought of being unable to practice her profession is a nightmare for her, since she says she has tons and tons to write about.

And write she will, although she wishes that soon she will be able to do so back home in Batangas, in her farm, with her husband and the birds that greet them every morning.