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There is something sinister in the air and it is not the debilitating heat. It is the middle of summer here in Manila and the usual temperature in this asphalt flatland is an invasive 38 degrees Celsius, the normal human body temperature. Well, yes, heat is a problem, but not a grave threat. We’ll survive this and with the ozone layer slowly tearing apart we may as well get used to it. (I should not complain really, New Delhi’s temperature is in the 40s.) A graver threat to our health, however, is in the air, and it has that tar-burning smell of Martial Law.


It’s hard to think that the Philippines’ most traumatic period happened just three decades ago. Right now, it’s as if the Martial Law, which started in the early ‘70s and lasted until dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his regime were booted out immediately after the 1986 EDSA revolution, has not happened. Imelda Marcos, she who owns a thousand pair shoes, is still in the news and her children are elected officials. Their cronies came back from exile to continue building their business empires through public funds diverted to their pockets during Martial Law. Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., a Marcos associate, is now the chief of San Miguel Corp., Southeast Asia’s largest food and beverage firm. Ferdinand Jr., aka, Bongbong, is a governor, while Imelda’s daughter, Imee, is a member of the House of the Representatives and a constant presence in the glossies for her so-called fashion sense. In fairness to Imee, she photographs well, now that her fats were sucked out and her facial skin stretched.


Filipinos, it is said, suffer from a collective amnesia of historical proportions. Romania executed its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for genocide. What did we do to the Marcos couple that looted the country and tortured thousands? Gave them a Hawaiian vacation and chance to inflict themselves upon us again. I love my country, but sometimes, I do wish to be somewhere else.


What makes me even more suspicious of these times, aside from seeing Martial Law supporters in power is the recent declaration from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to the group, the Philippines is the most murderous and dangerous country for journalists, beating Columbia, Russia, and Iraq, which ranked first for sometime for obvious reasons. The CPJ recorded 121 cases of journalists murdered since January 2000. In the past 16 months, NUJP counted 18 murders; and in almost all of these cases, the killer and the mastermind walk free.


The CPJ assailed the Arroyo administration for its failure to solve the murders, and it is not the only one wringing its hands. (The best government could do was “scare” the killers by declaring on national TV “Youre days are numbered!”) The International Federation of Journalists, the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF, and the local group, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have the same complaints.


At least journalists in Iraq die while they are working, while doing what they love most. They knew the risks of working in a war-torn country infested with fanatic insurgents. But here in the Philippines, a supposedly democratic country, reporters and broadcasters die while in the middle of mundane chores, on the street, inside their cars, inside their homes. Gene Boyd Lumawag, a photographer based in Jolo, Sulu was gunned down on the street, while on assignment. Marlyne Esperat, a former Department of Agriculture chemist turned whistleblower who was forced to become a reporter because she could not stomach the corruption at the DA, was shot dead at close range in front of her 10-year-old daughter at their home last February.


In this time of crisis, the old adage is shot down and revised: the pen is not mightier than the sword. But a gun is. For many tabloid reporters and provincial radio broadcasters, bringing guns to work has become de rigueur. Others have attended gun firing lessons. A tabloid columnist was almost gunned down but thanks to his great reflexes and his trusted shotgun, he boasted that his gunmen never had a chance. He shot them first before they could put him on the target, he said. A new superhero is born. (Except that this superhero is patterned after the villains and will probably make things worse.)


The CPJ, IFJ, and the RSF made a pilgrimage to the Philippines early this year to investigate the root cause of the killings. Their conclusions pointed to the “culture of impunity” in the country. “Far from any international war zone, the press in the Philippines did their combat duty at home, where they faced political corruption, a breakdown in law and order, and a widespread culture of impunity that perpetuated violence against journalists,” the CPJ said.


On Press Freedom Day last May 3, the RSF said, “not everything can be explained by the existence of a culture of violence in this country…A culture of impunity reigns, for which the highest government authorities are responsible, that has allowed killers and those who send them to murder so many journalists…Solving these cases will be a test for President Arroyo in the struggle against press freedom violations, corruption, and organized crime.”


I agree with their conclusions, but I have to point out something that is missing from the equation. Something that is pervasive yet rarely heard and discussed: that is the culture of feudalism, which allows politicians to think they own everyone. Perhaps the silence regarding feudalism in this country owes to the fact that it’s so unbelievable in the age of globalization and the internet. It sounds so medieval and out of place. Feudalism should have been gone, along with the steam engine and smallpox, when the Big Change took place.


But the Philippines still has one foot in the feudal world, like any other Third World country. For us who live in the cities, we were jolted to this reality in October 2004, and the remembrance of this fact came at a price. At this time, sugarcanes were left rotting in the fields by workers of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac in Hacienda Luisita, the sugarcane plantation owned by former President Corazon Aquino. The workers refused to go to work, demanding the management increased their daily wages. They claimed that the company was shortchanging them and that some of them only take home P19 a day. That’s Less than 50 cents (US), a day and insufficient to buy a kilo of rice. In a place fraught with tension and armed policemen, something bad would definitely happen. In Hacienda Luisita, it did. The ensuing riot pitted the workers with their handmade guns and scythe against armed soldiers and tanks (tanks! is this a war?). When the smoke cleared, at least 14 were dead and hundreds were injured.


Months after the violence, the workers are still in the picket line, waiting for their dues. What does one do, anyway, when the enemy is one of the most politically powerful and wealthy clans in the Philippines? What can one do, but wait?


The Hacienda Luisita riot was an obvious example of how feudal this country still is. But let me give another example of how the system works, albeit a subtler one and closer to home. Cheryl, who works at another paper, was with me at the photocopying station at the Sandiganbayan, the court the handles graft cases of public officials. We were going to do a story on a provincial mayor who was convicted of graft. A man wearing outdated-yellow-tinted-aviator glasses was standing behind Cheryl as she stood at a copier. A watchful assistant stood by his side. Without so much as an introduction, he asked Cheryl how much he should pay her to write the story he had in mind. He even left his calling card, just so next time we may want to be bribed, we’d know who to call. If petty officials think they can buy the principles of journalists in a snap, what stops the bigger fishes from ordering the deaths of reporters who have dirt on them?


But the feudal mindset is not confined to the petty provincial chiefs. The city is infested with them, too. A few months ago, it was revealed that the military has a for-internal-instruction only CD called Know Thy Enemywhich lists the enemies of the state. (I bet whoever chose the title is a fan of The Art of War, but a military strategist he is not.) The state’s enemies, according to the military, include the NUJP, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and several leftist and church-based organizations.


The military should be reminded that their Commander-In-Chief would not have been in power without the support of these organizations at EDSA 2 in 2001, when we kicked out the womanizing and corrupt Joseph “Erap” Estrada. It was the Left who first sounded the call of “Oust Erap,” kicking off a nationwide anti-Estrada rallies; it was the PCIJ who published Estrada’s ill-gotten wealth. Arroyo was in power mainly because she was the vice-president then and we really didn’t have much choice. I was at the EDSA 2 and the throng actually booed every time her name was called. I think we all felt we got the raw end of a deal.


Throughout this folly, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo still has to apologize for the list made by her peons and/or chastise the military for the ridiculous accusations against legitimate groups. Her silence on the matter is tantamount to a declaration of open season against journalists and critics. Unless she condemns the list, I suspect that the body count would only increase.


The President also has yet to offer real protection and assurance to journalists, many of whom work fearing for their lives and under conditions similar to the Martial Law, except without the regular electrocution and water torture. I know I do not belong to this group whose lives are on the edge and despite my discontent at our desk sometimes, I consider myself lucky. The broadsheet I work for provides a decent salary for a single person, and I am based in Manila, where newspapers have tremendous legal and political clout.


But in the provinces, the repression is more marked and reporters and journalists on community newspapers with meager resources and clout are on their own. Many of those who were murdered in the last 18 months were the “hard-hitting” kind whose targets are almost always provincial bureaucrats and criminal gangs. Some congressmen and military officials faulted them for muckraking, calling it “irresponsible journalism”. If a journalist breaches the limits of journalistic ethics, he or she should face the legal consequences. Nobody—not even the most rotten reporter—deserves to be murdered.


This is why I believe that these days are but a prelude to dangerous times for all Filipinos. Marcos lasted more than two decades because he struck and stuck to the right formula: one of the first things he did as dictator was to close down the newspapers to silence his critics so he could cover up the abuses. Quashing the press and killing reporters has bigger implications, beyond just achieving their silence. The effects domino to individuals who never read news or cannot read at all. It cultivates an ignorant society and allows those in power to commit abuses. While the Arroyo administration has no overt policy against press freedom like Marcos, the simple fact that it fails to use its full powers to protect journalists makes it responsible and an accomplice for the crimes. Letting the killers and the masterminds walk away limits press freedom by sending the message to journalists that their words could mean their end.


The Philippines is supposed to have the freest press in Southeast Asia. We are extremely proud of that distinction in a region the saw democracy only in the last 50 years or so. I remembered a few years ago, Lee Kwan Yew, Singaporean prime minister who steered his island-country to economic prosperity using totalitarian methods, said we’re a sorry state because of our freewheeling political system. We just laughed him off. Why do we have to believe this uptight Totalitarian from a country who doesn’t know how to party? Yes, we admit we don’t have much but at least we can also laugh at our leaders and make them the butt of our jokes. At least we can chew gum and spit it on the street. Right?


Arroyo may boast that democracy is alive in the Philippines, but that is only an illusion. The quality of democracy is not only measured by what journalists can write about. More importantly, a truly democratic country allows its journalists to accomplish their work without having to watch their backs.

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