[Jos Midas Bartman] The fight for press freedom is local

A macabre political thriller recently unfolded in the Philippine province of Palawan, an island known primarily for its rich biodiversity and pristine beaches. On May 9, Joel T. Reyes, the alleged mastermind of the 2011 murder of famed broadcaster Gerry Ortega, ran again for governor. If Reyes had won, the chances of Ortega’s family getting justice for the murder would have diminished. Luckily for them, he lost.

While episodes like Ortega’s murder may seem extreme, they’re more common than many realize. Powerful authoritarian sub-national elites like Reyes, backed by a political milieu that often guarantees them impunity, pose the deadliest threat to journalists.

Ortega was shot and killed after publicly accusing Reyes, governor of Palawan from 2002 to 2011, of embezzlement. All members of the strike team were quickly arrested and later confessed to the murder. But, despite strong evidence that Reyes ordered the murder, prosecutors have refrained from charging him.

The middleman in the scheme, Rodolfo Edrad, implicated Reyes as the mastermind and was placed under witness protection. However, prosecutors concluded that Edrad’s testimony was unsubstantiated. Prosecutors have ruled that text messages Reyes sent to Edrad shortly before and after the murder — including one that read, ‘I hope when I get back the issue is resolved’ — could not be used as evidence because they were “filed out of time.”

A decade-long legal battle between Ortega’s family and Reyes ensued. A newly appointed team of prosecutors accepted the text message as evidence and took over the case, after which Reyes fled to Vietnam. Although an appeals court later ruled that the second panel of prosecutors was illegitimate, a new panel of that same court in 2019 ordered the trial to continue.

But Reyes’ arrest warrant, filed in 2021, has been temporarily lifted, allowing him to openly campaign for governor. Meanwhile, Ortega’s family, their attorneys and the Solicitor General’s office have formally asked the Supreme Court to order Reyes’ immediate arrest – a move backed by global press freedom organizations. .

That Reyes will soon be prosecuted has significant implications for press freedom in the Philippines. The country currently ranks 147th in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, partly due to the lack of safety for journalists. Widespread impunity or partial impunity for their murders is a safety concern for all journalists in the Philippines.

Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern about the potential effect on press freedom of the recent election victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. But for many journalists, especially in large decentralized countries like the Philippines, who wields power at the regional and local level matters just as much, if not more. In young democracies with relatively weak institutions, authoritarian subnational leaders can govern in ways some national-level autocrats can only dream of. Clientelism and clientelism give them the means to win elections and sometimes plunder public resources.

This phenomenon has been evident for decades in the Philippines where, to take just one example, the Osmeña family enjoys dynastic preeminence in the province of Cebu. But it also happens in other countries. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had ruled the state of Veracruz for nearly a century when Javier Duarte, the governor from 2010 to 2016, became the party’s poster boy for corruption after embezzling millions of dollars of public money.

In such contexts, journalists like Ortega are democracy’s last hope. Authoritarian local leaders are always image-conscious, as a loss of face could lead central institutions to intervene. The cloning and distribution of fake versions of critical news magazines by the former government of the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico was a clumsy attempt to manage its image and silence dissent. The killing of journalists at the behest of these elites is a darker point on the continuum of repression.

Without access to accurate and objective information, there cannot be free and fair local elections. The fact that democracy is the only game in town at the national level is hardly reassuring for those who live in a state or province ruled by a local autocrat. In Veracruz, under the Duarte administration, for example, 18 journalists were murdered with impunity, and prosecutors were accused of torturing a local sex worker into falsely confessing to the murder of journalist Regina Martínez. Perez.

Unsurprisingly, executive and judicial institutions are weak in such contexts – how else could such local authoritarian leaders emerge? In the Ortega case in the Philippines, allegations of corruption within the judiciary are commonplace.

While it is difficult to discover how and by whom a journalist was murdered, assessing the exact intentions of local authorities during an investigation can be even more difficult. One possible solution is to establish independent prosecution bodies to investigate murders of journalists and monitor local implementation of UN guidelines for prosecutors in cases of crimes against journalists. But such efforts require political will on the part of central governments.

Another way to fight impunity for killing journalists is to step up efforts to investigate cold cases. The project A Safer World for Truth – a collaboration between Free Press Unlimited, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders – is currently carrying out such investigations. New discoveries can sometimes lead to the reopening of these files. For example, an investigation into the murder of Pakistani journalist Zubair Mujahid led the family – along with lawyers – to file a petition with the Sindh High Court to reopen the investigation.

National leaders who attack independent media – such as former US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin – are attracting attention. But, as journalists at risk everywhere will confirm, the local struggle for press freedom and democracy is just as important.

Jose Midas Bartman
Jos Midas Bartman is research coordinator for A Safer World for the Truth at Free Press Unlimited. — Ed.

(Project Syndicate)

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

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