What the journalist can do

Cebu City-based broadcaster George Benaojan was usually seen in the company of people riding shotgun on his car. At a media safety forum, he told his audience he once survived an ambush because he and his companions were armed, an implied admission that he employed used bodyguards.

On Dec. 1, 2005, Benaojan was shot dead.  At the time, he had no protectors with him.

A year and a half before that, on June 8, 2004, a lone gunman shot at broadcaster Cirse Torralba as “Choy” was leaving his radio station after a broadcast.

He had a driver but no bodyguard.  But with a five-shot revolver, he managed to shoot back and survive. The incident was later declared non-work-related. [See List of journalists who were victims of violence and harassment.]

Security arrangement

Using bodyguards, guns, or both is how some security-conscious media practitioners have responded to critical risks of the craft.

Though media houses generally don’t include hiring bodyguards for reporters as part of their internal security arrangements, Metro Manila-based media firms often pay local guides to keep their news teams safe during high-risk out-of-town coverages.

Some practitioners too secure their own bodyguards, outside of whatever arrangements their employers may have.

Controversy-plagued broadcaster Mon Tulfo, in an old documentary, claimed to have a phalanx of Marines he got through connections. A June 2, 2019 news story said the security detail was later recalled.

Most others who feel at risk prefer the Choy Torralba approach. They shun bodyguards because they are expensive to keep, or too conspicuous. 

Also, since last year’s KUSA TV Denver Colorado incident, armed bodyguards in the service of media have become potential legal liability of the employer. On October 11, 2020, a bodyguard that KUSA TV sent with a reporter to a rally shot and killed one of the rallyists.

Owning a gun  

A licensed sidearm is more subtle.  A journalist under threat may ask the police for permit to carry a lawfully-acquired gun.

Yes, buying a gun involves a rather lengthy process of applying for a License to Own and Possess a Firearm (LTOPF), which requires a drug test, a psych evaluation, plus of clearances from the police and the court.

But once that is complied with, getting a carry permit requires only a notarized application and an NBI clearance, on top of a few more documents.

The mandatory threat assessment by the police is waived because, according to the Directorate for Police Community Relations website, “accredited media practitioners from recognized media institutions” … are “considered to be in imminent danger due to the nature of their profession, occupation, or business.”

Guns though don’t produce magic results. It doesn’t automatically ward off serious attackers. And without training on handling, marksmanship, and safety, guns are more dangerous to the owner than to an attacker.

But apart from getting trained on its use, a gun-owner can only truly maximize a firearm’s efficacy and increase the likelihood of surviving a violent assault if he or she learns how to manage hazards before they become actual risks.

Safety consciousness

Dr. Eduardo Fulgencio of the Philippine Society for Industrial Security differentiates hazard and risk. Hazards, he says, are things or situations that can cause harm and are naturally encountered or occur as a result of one’s day-to-day realities.  A risk, on the other hand, is the chance, high or low, that the hazard will translate into harm.

For a journalist, a hazard can be slighting and infuriating a source or subject of a news report, fair or unfair. The journalist may become “at risk” when the source or subject acts upon the slight either personally or through third persons. Normally, he writes off a letter of reply or sues. But he might also resort to physical violence instead.

Assessing, classifying the risk

If the slighted source or subject, on his own or through  agents, collectively called the “threat,”  has the means and the opportunity to exact reprisal by using violent means and  acts accordingly, then the risk becomes potentially serious and needs to be managed.

Risk management, in the context of personal security, involves developing possible scenarios of harm at the hands of the threat, identifying procedures to avoid or minimize the impact, and acting in accordance to those procedures.

Tactical action

Alex Monteagudo, during his stint at the PNP Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management, prescribed a list of “Dos” for the “at risk” journalist.  His Handbook on Personal Security Measures for Media Practitioners, a PNP-produced pamphlet, was released in 2010.

Among those prescribed for the at-risk persons:

  • Consider deviating your route slightly.
  • Stop with a purpose during foot or vehicle travel to see if somebody is following you.
  • Go to the nearest safe area (places where there are armed guards) if you feel you are being followed.
  • Notify authorities.

At the home, Monteagudo suggests, among others, that one:

  • Refrain from giving one’s keys to others;
  • Ensure that all doors and windows are secured at all times; 
  • Determine the identifies of those allowed to come inside;
  • Never leave the house for more than 24 hours;
  • Know where all family members are at all times;
  • Have first-aid supply at home; and,
  • Report to authorities all suspicious activities, like unknown cars parked nearby.

At the workplace, the suggestions include:

  • Ensure that a designated security officer and security guards are employed to help deter attacks;
  • Avoid placing names on doors or reserved parking areas; and,
  • Clear areas of anything where bombs can be hidden or where assailants can hide.

Critical failure

In the July 22, 2021 shooting of broadcaster Renante “Rey” Cortes, as well as in the killing of 10 other Cebu media persons between 1961 and 2013, the process of hazard identification, risk assessment and management, if at all carried out, apparently failed.

In the latest shooting incident, Rey Cortes was reportedly shot from a distance by a rifle-bearing assailant who escaped by motorcycle.

It is not known if the assailant was in the company of others – a lookout, perhaps, or a getaway driver – but a spent 5.56mm cartridge was recovered from the crime scene. The casing tends to confirm that the murder weapon is an AR15, most likely an unlawfully acquired M16 or variant.

If the shooter sawed off an M16 barrel to 11 inches, to keep the gun concealable, and used the most common and cheapest bullet, the M193, Cortes was on the receiving end of a 55-grain projectile at a velocity reaching about 2,834 feet per second.  

In comparison, that smaller, twisting, turning and fragmenting bullet is travelling over twice the velocity of a standard 115-grain hollow point shot from standard police-issued Beretta pistol.

How would one survive an attack like that? That all depends upon the circumstances, which is a way of saying, ‘who knows?’

The risk and some ‘maybes’

Maybe if he’d been wearing Level III body armor, which is priced within the means of some media practitioners but probably not for most, he’d have survived.

Maybe if the first shot missed and he was able to seek immediate cover and return fire, the assailants would’ve retreated to fight another day.

Maybe if he had a well-trained security detail, as some businessmen and politicians have, he could have had a safe corridor to run to his car and leave the “kill zone.”

But that’s too many maybes. The safest bet remains to not be at risk or, if that cannot be helped, to make sure that the risk is managed.

KNR is a Certified Security Professional, former firearms safety officer, and journalist who gives, in and off classrooms, lectures, workshops, and trainings on conflict-sensitive journalism and media safety. He is associate editor of CJJ Magazine Online.