Assassinations Destroying the Future of Filipino Journalists
by Manuel L. Quezon III
I met Fernando “Dong” Batul only once, and briefly. I was in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, to speak at a forum. He was there. He invited me to be a guest on his radio show, along with an economist with our group. We went; we were interviewed; the whole thing lasted about an hour. We discussed why we were at the forum (to discuss the national situation with members of various NGOs), and moved on to other topics of concern, such as the implications of opening up mining in Palawan.
As all AM radio shows tend to be, Batul’s show was blunt, both in his opinions and those expressed by his listeners. He was, however, generally a pleasant person, fairly tall and self-assured, with a media man turned politician’s fluency and penchant for the pungent turn of phrase. He told me (as most politicians do) that what he was doing was a hassle, but that it had to be done, after all he was an ordinary person and wanted to stand up for ordinary folk. I’ve met many people like him, listened to, and taken part in quite a few shows like his, listened to the give-and-take, the banter, between young leaders like himself and the public.
He was proud of the fact that he’d been elected vice-mayor of Puerto Princesa City in 2004, though later kicked out of office following an election protest. Obviously his opponent was the evil one, and himself, the aggrieved party; equally obviously, he was open to the idea of a political comeback and his show, as most public affairs programs often are, and those belonging to people in the political wilderness always are, was devoted to what we Filipinos like to call “fiscalizing.”
Last month, according to the papers, someone threw a grenade at Batul’s house. Two weeks before that, he’d apparently interviewed a local leader of the Communist New People’s Army on his show. A note accompanied the grenade: “It kills to be too talkative.”
On May 22, on his way to his show, Batul was shot dead in his vehicle, 50 meters from the radio station. The assassins were two men on a motorcycle. He was hit 12 times with a .45 caliber revolver: Four bullets in the face, four in the chest, three in the back and one in the side, according to the police.
The rituals of feigned official interest ensued. Dramatic calls for action were made; Batul’s political opponents took the lead in denouncing his murder; an impressive reward was put forward; a 48-hour deadline for an investigation imposed. Will anything happen? It’s always a tricky business trying to make predictions. But consider the case of a publisher who was shot in Aurora Province on May 10, 2005. The chief suspect in the case, the mayor of Dingalan town, didn’t surrender until an hour before a warrant was to be issued for his arrest — on May 22 of this year (the same day that Batul was shot).
At the very least, the wheels of justice will grind slowly, if at all. The killings of journalists have reached world-alarming proportions. Batul’s assassination marks the 79th case of a journalist killed in the Philippines since 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos went into exile and the country regained a free and open media. It isn’t an encouraging record, and doesn’t speak highly at all of the country’s so-called freedom of expression, or information.
I didn’t talk to Fernando Batul long enough to dispel the superficial impression that he was a run of the mill politician engaged in a run of the mill effort to make a name for himself. I do know that he was neither better, nor worse, than many of his brethren in both the professions of journalism and politics. Certainly, I didn’t hear or see anything during the time I talked to him, or participated in his show, that set him apart from his peers. Nothing worth killing him for; and even if he did interview a Communist guerrilla on his show -well, one can either turn a blind eye to reality, or turn the public’s attention to it.
Anyway, he is dead, the latest grim statistic. And he is a subset in a set of even grimmer statistics: since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took office in 2001, anywhere from 566 to 601 political activists have been liquidated; from 2005 to March of this year alone, 143 have been killed. These are people whose political beliefs are radical, and who belong to a political minority, and who may even be dangerous to the State: but these were also people who weren’t fighting in the hills, but instead, out in the open, in organized political parties and movements.
Like the murdered journalists, they were ambushed and killed for no other reason other than what they stood for and said. No journalist identified with supporting the present administration has suffered a similar fate; the politicians and organizers of the ruling parties have similarly been free of harm. Organizations of journalists from around the world have expressed concern over the killing of journalists, and human rights groups have expressed alarm over the political killings. The government counters that the Communists may be killing their own and rivals, too, which is beside the point, even if true.
Batul was only 37, a year older than I, when he was killed. When we met, he asked me, both on and off the air, if I was interested in entering politics. I told him I wasn’t: he replied, “but you have all the advantages.” I said, “so what?” He laughed, and said, “well, I got this far without any advantages,” to which I responded, “So you see? The future belongs to you.”
But that future is now gone for him, as it is for so many others.