Motive is crucial to determining whether the violence or intimidation is work-related and  aimed to impair the function of the press. Whatever the reason for the attack though, that does  not diminish the need to enforce the law and bring justice, whoever the victim, from media or any other sector. Getting away with the crime adds force to impunity, the enabler of many assaults on  basic rights. Whatever the motive, impact of the attack on media practitioners remains. The worn-out phrase “chilling  effect” is as true as ever each time a journalist is taken down. This article explains the standard and method used by the Cebu media community in making and updating this list. 

WHY does the media community raise an outcry when a journalist or any other media worker is killed, wounded, beaten up, or threatened? For the same reason that it keeps track of each incident involving a media worker and prods authorities to bring the perpetrator to justice.

That the victim is one of our own is the convenient answer. We also believe that incidents of violence, intimidation or any other form of harassment against a media worker must be recorded and examined to help solve the crime and prosecute offenders and guide media practitioners in adopting measures for personal and collective safety.

Common purpose

Like any other community, media workers consider themselves a group, driven to defend one of their own. But there’s something more. Though they’re not special people, they carry additional burden and honor by the nature of their calling, which makes them surrogates of their public. Though not closely knit and often feud among themselves, they rally to the common cause of defending free press and free speech.

Despite being conflicted by professional or personal interests among some of its members, most are driven by a common purpose: public welfare and duty of the press to protect and enhance it.

This is what generally moves media and those who support its function in a democracy to demand for redress to the crime or offense: not just the violation of penal law itself but the harm it inflicts on function of media.

The Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists (PPASJ) prefaced its report of 2019, thus: “Every journalist killed or neutralized by terror is an observer less of the human condition. Every attack distorts reality by creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.”

The same line appears in the United Nations 2017 Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity under IPDC or International Program for the Development of Communication of UNESCO.

Conditions to fit norm

Some observers on the work of media that the PPASJ statement of purpose is premised on this: that the victim, to deserve protection and defense –

(a) must be attacked for what he/she wrote, spoke about or otherwise published in media;

(b) must be an accredited or “legitimate” journalist, engaged in writing, editing or otherwise producing or presenting the news in a recognized news media outlet;

(c) must have followed standards of journalism and norms of a practicing journalist and didn’t abuse his job or used it for personal gain or agenda; and,

(d) must have been attacked “in line of duty,” while working in the newsroom or pursuing a story, or otherwise involved in the production of the news.

As logical as that line of thought is, a panel of Cebu journalists — at a Cebu Press Freedom Week forum some years ago –adopted the proposition that violence or intimidation on media workers can hurt its functions even though motive, purpose, or victim does not meet the stringent norms of a number of media organizations.

Disqualifiers but are not

Basing on conditions specified or implied by the PPASJ norm, one cannot consider violence or intimidation on a media worker as attack on media, if the victim —

(a) was assaulted over a private and personal cause, such as a land dispute, quarrel over a neighborhood association seat, a person in a love triangle, or similar incidents which do not concern the public;

(b) was a block-time broadcaster, a free-lance news contributor or blogger, not affiliated to or accredited by a news media outlet; or performed a less known or celebrated function in the production or circulation of the media product, such as printing press employee or digital technician and the like;

(c) violated basic rules of fairness and verification, used his news story or commentary to extort money and protect his/her benefactors, and similar unethical, even illegal behavior; or

(d) was attacked while on personal and private time, such as being engaged in an activity totally unrelated to media work, like a drinking or drugs party or being mugged by a street robber.

Yet the Cebu media community has rejected those conditions. As borne by experience in studying killings and other attacks on local journalists, it is hard to identify the motive of assault. They are disqualifiers but are not.

In most cases, no suspect is prosecuted and if it he is, the reason is not determined, especially when the mastermind is not caught. Unlike the killing of newspaper editor-broadcaster Antonio Abad Tormis in 1961 – a cut-and-dried case of assault on media – in most if not all the killings of media workers in Cebu since then, the question of why has not been conclusively answered.

Tormis, Badayos cases

What “ideally” fits into the mold of media killing that to the public deserves commendation is when the perpetrator’s attack is (a) in retaliation to the journalist’s publishing work or (b) during a news coverage where personal or political partisans unleash violence on the media worker. In sum: when the attack is work-related or in line of duty.

In Cebu’s media history, recorded in the CCPC-CJJ Tracker on journalist victims of attack, the 1961 murder of Antonio Abad Tormis stands out as textbook example of assault on media. The beating up of photographer Alex Badayos in 2007 by supporters of a politician while he was covering a Bogo City incident is another. The occasion and the reason spell out “in line of duty” and “work-related.”

Tormis was Republic Daily editor (equivalent to today’s newspaper editor-in-chief) and columnist and radio commentator in the fifties and early sixties. He was killed for exposing and condemning alleged corruption at the Cebu City treasurer’s office. His two killers and the mastermind, the city treasurer, were prosecuted, convicted and jailed, before the Regional Trial Court and the Supreme Court.

No question that Tormis’s murder was to avenge for what he published in print and radio, which qualified under the PPASJ standard, though he was shot just after he had his haircut, a personal grooming ritual. And clearly it was intended to stop the exposes and condemnations Tormis was making against the treasurer. The motive fell within the ambit of an assault on free press and the “chilling effect” on the other journalists.

Motive in the physical assault on Badayos was also clear. The prosecutor established that the news photographer was beaten up because of his coverage of the election incident in Bogo. Charges were filed in court for physical injuries against persons whose boss was the mayor. No conviction resulted, unlike in the Tormis murder, but motive for the attack on Badayos was confirmed and established.

Used to downsize attack

What is often employed as counterfoil by some government bureaucrats or political partisans to dismiss the attack or or minimize its consequence? The claim that it was not work-related or in line of duty or because of bad behavior by the victim.

In June 2016, then president-elect Rodrigo Duterte said killing of journalists was not his problem “if you are vultures of journalism.” “You low lives,” he said, “you can die for all I care. You’re asking for it, getting into illegal activities.” Bad behavior, to the president and some people, justifies the murder of journalists.

Reactions to news of a killing or wounding of a media worker usually include: Why? What did he do, what was the reason he was shot: abusive attack, extortion?

In 2019, the Global Impunity Index listed 41 unsolved killings in the Philippines, which ranked the country as having the most number. Because of ratings like that, which reflects on a country’s state of peace and order and its protection of media and press freedom, governments tend to dispute categories of killings. In the 2009 Maguindanao/Ampatuan massacre, defenders of the Arroyo administration questioned the number of media workers killed (32 of 58 slain), saying that many of those listed as journalists were just manual laborers who didn’t do actual media work.

Thus, the added value of accurately determining motive or reason for the killing and the nature of the victim’s job.

Presumption on attack

Motive is the crucial factor but, as earlier raised, often tough to identify. If the crime is not solved or the reason for the attack is not ascertained in police investigation or at prosecutor’s inquiry or court trial, the question of motive hangs.

Using hired killers who refuse to squeal on the principal adds to the difficulty of tagging motive. It cannot be confirmed as work-related unless the mercenary discloses the mastermind’s motive to liquidate the target or that motive is apparent from the material published by the victim.

Does not failure to identify the principal killer’s motive raise the presumption that it is work-related? That would be easier. As in law, a presumption can replace proof. But presumptions in media’s favor may not be acceptable anymore because of growing distrust in the press, abetted by suspicion of corruption among some practitioners.

Similarly, it cannot be assumed that the attack is personal and not tied up to the media work. That was the case in the shooting-to-death of Cebu radio commentators Vicente Villordon, Ambrosio Iyas, and Nabing Velez, where no suspected killers were arrested; not even persons of interest were identified and investigated. The victims were harsh in their commentaries but they led “colorful” and controversial private lives as well.

In many cases, the motives could be mixed: in part, for personal reason; in part, because of what the victim wrote or broadcast. Among the Cebu killings, for example, an anti-Communist advocate worked as news reporter and a PDEA public information officer hosted a radio program. Personal interest fused with the obligation to serve public interest.

Updating the Tracker

CJJ Magazine and CPCC have adopted this policy in managing the List or Tracker:

It records and publicizes the reason for the attack,
if that is determined with reasonable certainty.
It considers media reports published about the assault,
which in turn depend on police, prosecutor’s investigation
or judge’s review. As a running list, the Tracker is updated,
if a verifiable fact comes up and contradicts or refutes an
earlier entry.

The Tracker started as a bare-boned list in 2012, compiled by Cherry Ann T. Lim; first published by Max Limpag in the CCPC website on October 4, 2012, then by Lim on January 3, 2013. Fleshed out and re-published nine years later, in September 2021, it does not exclude or delist anyone on the basis of non-work-related motive, non-accreditation, or bad or poor journalistic practice of the victim.

Being a Cebuano media worker qualifies a victim to be in the list. Still, circumstances of the attack are diligently recorded and updated whenever new information, confirmed or verifiable, emerges.

CMFR, CPJ standards

Other news organizations that record incidents of assault on media practitioners have their own standards of keeping track.

Rules of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) provide that a killing is deemed to be in line of duty “for so long as it finds any evidence to indicate motives external to the person’s activities as a journalist/media practitioner.” What do “motives external” to the person’s activities in the media mean?

The need to clarify comes when that line is read together with CMFR’s basis for delisting a victim: when “corroborated reports/findings show there was strong paramount motive that had nothing to do with the person’s journalism/media practice.”

Melinda de Jesus, CMFR executive director, told CCPC deputy director Marit Stinus-Cabugon they follow the IFEX standards for determining the inclusion of a killing (in the CMFR list.) IFEX is International Freedom of Expression Exchange. IFEX members daily monitor attacks on journalists and media throughout the world. They “call attention to various forms of violence and threats on journalists and larger environments in which independent media must survive.”

Under their standards and methodology, the attack must be work-related, determined after their own separate investigations.

For example, the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a 2014 editorial (“Steps to stop media killings”) noted that CMFR didn’t include in its list four journalists killed between 2011 and 2013 “because, after extensive investigation, we established they were killed because of a land dispute, in the course of a robbery, or because of purely personal matters.”

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has been compiling detailed records on all journalist deaths since 1992, considers a case work-related “only when …a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related cross fire, or while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as covering a protest that turns violent.” If the motive is unclear but it is “possible” that the journalist died in relation to his work , CPJ classifies the case as “unconfirmed” until new evidence says otherwise.

Sometimes, separate conclusions about a killing of a media worker are dissimilar because of different standards or their interpretation.

PNP yardstick on SITG

The Philippine National Police standard operating procedure (2012-006 of November 12, 2012) considers the killing of a media practitioner “heinous and sensational crime” and requires an investigation by an SITG or special investigation task group.

Media practitioners are included in the same category as vice governors, provincial board members, mayors, vice mayors, councilors, barangay captains and councilors, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and militants.

The police SOP does not define “media practitioner.” It may be assumed that the media worker who falls under its category is one whom the police chief considers as “media practitioner.” They considered broadcaster Rey Cortes as one and thus formed, under PNP procedure, an SITG (special investigation task group) to solve his murder.

CJJ-CCPC policy, purpose

While CJJ Magazine and CCPC strive to be diligent in getting the facts of an assault against a media worker, it does not exclude or delist any media worker from the CJJ-CCPC Tracker on the basis of motive.

It specifies the reason the victim was attacked, if that information is available and confirmed or verifiable as a fact. Or, if the motive is not ascertained yet, it will be recorded as unconfirmed. News media reports as well as results of police investigation and findings of prosecutor and court will be included as reference.

Having restated that policy for emphasis and clarity, let us put on record the multi-pronged purpose: The project seeks (a) to inform the response of local media industry to the assault: (2) to decry and seek redress for the victim, (3) to look into any media lapse or abuse, which set off the attack, and (4) to help historians assess how the journalists coped with the violence of their time.

Atty. Seares is former editor-in-chief of SunStar Cebu, Superbalita [Cebu] and SunStar Yearbook. He writes for SunStar, including Explainer news, opinion columns News Sense and The Short of It, Bzzzzz, and the media column Media’s Public. He’s also SunStar public and standards editor, editor of Cebu Journalism and Journalists Magazine, and executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council.