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Gouging a nation’s eyes

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CEBU CITY– Does a bootlegged siren, in a silver Civic Honda car, explain why most killers of 172 journalists evade conviction?

President Benigno Aquino bans sirens for his convoy. Not Talisay City Mayor Socrates Fernandez’s son Joavan. He scuffles with anti-narcotic agents, court officials, cops or neighbors. He wang-wangs from his Civic Honda with impunity.

The UN Commission on Human Rights cobbled a 54-word definition of impunity. Your dictionary uses three: “Exemption from punishment.”

About 97 percent for those who murdered newsmen evaded conviction.

The UN and the Asian Institute of Journalism & Communication seek a “new multi-disciplinary approach” to the body count. The Philippines, Iraq, and Somalia top the 2010 Impunity Index operated by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Index monitors trends, in countries, where journalists are serially rubbed out, as law enforcers falter. “Two of the world’s worst offenders are Russia and the Philippines,” CPJ asserts.

Others in the Index are Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. ”Many present themselves as democracies with functioning law enforcement, e.g. India, Russia, and the Philippines.

“Impunity is having a broader effect, “CPJ points out. (It) effectively chokes off the flow of information. Many Sri Lankan journalists fled into exile lest they be targeted.

Self-censorship, in Mexico, is so widespread major events go uncovered. Filipino newsmen, who reside in political warlord dominated provinces, play it safe. They flag controversial reports to metro-based colleagues.

Why are newsmen targeted?, sociologists, political scientists to psychiatrists asked at AIJC roundtables in San Juan, Cebu City, and General Santos City. Why are these slayings rarely solved? Why is there no public outcry?

The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility research into salvaging of newsmen started in 1991. The first reports of rubouts trickled in then. CMFR probed 32 murders since the 1986 People Power scrapped Marcos censorship.

“The Center found 22 were killed in the line of duty. (There was) great variance of motives and perpetrators: … Post-Marcos regimes were saddled with a politicized military, police and judicial institutions. Add to this weaknesses of law enforcement agencies, corruption and lack of capacity for forensic investigation.

Many victims were broadcasters in the provinces. A number had hazy “blocktimer” credentials. CMFR then “did not find evidence of a pattern involving government officials…”

But this changed over time. CMFR noted a “remarkable spike” under President Arroyo. Out of 117 journalists killings, 79 occurred during her watch.

The Ampatuan town massacre (catapulted) “ the country from sixth to third on the Index,” CPJ stated. “The massacre overshadowed gains that Philippine authorities made, winning convictions in two journalist murders.”

Extra-judicial killings include student activist, peasant leaders, politicians, even “commissars” in the local communist pogroms, UN special rapporteur Philip Alston wrote. “Given covert official backing and citizen complacency, as in Davao and Cebu, death squads operate with impunity.”

A killing costs about P5,000 (roughly US$100)…. Many occur in “in broad daylight”. “Witnesses are not prepared to testify.”(Impunity) encouraged death squad killings to spread.

A culture of impunity builds up incrementally.The Philippines waffled on who collaborated with World War II Japanese occupiers. This smudged the difference between Quislings and resistance, historian Frank Golay notes.

None were held accountable for the 3,257 salvaging victims and 70,000 prisoners of the “New Society”. Torturers of the Marcos era (rose) within the police and intelligence bureaucracy,” Alfred McCoy notes in his book Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy

(Cornell University).

“Under impunity…culture and politics recast the past, turning cronies into statesmen, torturers into legislators and killers into generals. No nation can develop…without a sense of justice”

Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies) is Prof. McCoy’s latest book. It sketches how the dark underworld of crime, subversion, vice, and drugs here is linked to the bright, public world of politics, Ateneo sociologist John Carroll notes. That’d provide further input for the UN-AIJC series).

Examples of impunity guarantee repeat of abuse.

In 2003, Justice Renato Corona wrote for the Supreme Court : The Marcoses’ Swiss bank accounts (and) foreign foundation were set up to conceal the illegally-acquired funds of the Marcos spouses. [They] failed to justify the lawful nature of their acquisition of the said assets.” No punishment, however, was meted.

Down the road, did that spur Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to shred the plunder conviction of ex-president Joseph Estrada? Does one pardon deserve another?

“For all the trappings of a national government…we conduct our affairs pretty much in the manner of Lapu-Lapu and Humabon,” the late historian Horacio de la Costa once mused. “(Today’s) congressman who moves around with bodyguards is not much different from the datu surrounded by his retainers.”

Thus, many see the Ampatuan massacre trial as just another case, albeit at a monstrous scale. Still at large are 130 suspects. But it is more.

In the dock is a centuries-old system of impunity crafted by the powerful and moneyed. Judge Jocelyn Solis- Reyes’ decision will affect our grandchildren’s future.

As that Civic Honda’s wang-wang proclaims: Impunity can gouge out the eyes of a nation.

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