AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Gun-Toting Journalists   

It’s long been taboo for reporters to carry weapons. But what do you do when you’re in constant danger, your colleagues are being gunned down and the authorities can’t protect you?

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » Forced Into Hiding

Wispy gray clouds floated over rain-soaked Manila as journalists congregated at a sprawling military camp on the outskirts of town. They trod through a sea of mud, unbuckling belts that held cellular telephones and exchanged them for holsters with .45-caliber pistols and bullet clips. The slogan on radio reporter Raoul Esperas' black T-shirt delivered a stark warning: "We don't get mad, we get even."

A Filipino soldier coached from the sidelines as members of the Fourth Estate lined up, feet apart, leaning slightly forward, arms outstretched, taking aim: one, two, three, fire! Shell casings flew in all directions as Esperas emptied his custom-made, high-powered pistol. "If that was an assassin, he would be dead," said Esperas, peering through a haze of gunsmoke to survey his marksmanship.

The journalists clicked on safety catches, jammed guns into holsters and headed to an adjacent field to observe Army recruits practicing combat maneuvers. Instead of scribbling notes for a story, they watched techniques that might help them evade attacks by motorcycle-riding gunmen who speed out of the shadows to kill them.

Earlier that morning, the reporters gathered in a pressroom at Camp Aguinaldo to explain the dire circumstances that drove them to start ARMED, a grassroots self-defense movement that has drawn worldwide attention, mostly because it so clearly breaks with the entrenched taboo against journalists carrying – and using – guns. Faced with seemingly intractable safety problems and the lack of government protection, the Filipino journalists have decided that they simply have to protect themselves. What is happening here could set a precedent in places like Colombia, Russia and Bangladesh, where attacks against the media also are common.

But nowhere is as deadly as the Philippines. In a May report titled "Marked for Death," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists listed the island nation as the most murderous country in the world for the media, ahead of Iraq. Five journalists have been killed in 2005, including an investigative reporter executed in front of her children on March 24.

Twenty-two have been slain since 2000, the majority radio broadcasters from rural provinces where local warlords, drug traffickers and rebel factions reign. Dozens more have been wounded by gunfire during attacks; some have had bombs thrown into their homes. Masked gunmen have burst into newsrooms, tying up employees and splashing acid on equipment. In one case, a police chief seeking revenge challenged a radio reporter to a duel.

Then came an infamous week in May.

The Filipino press corps was stunned when two provincial journalists were murdered within seven days. On May 4, gunmen opened fire on Klein Cantoneros, a radio broadcaster from the island of Mindanao, as he rode home on his motorbike. On May 10, Philip Agustin, the editor and publisher of a newspaper in the town of Dingalan, was shot in the head in his daughter's kitchen as she prepared a late-night meal for him.

Clearly, something had to change.

A group of Manila journalists met in a restaurant to figure out what to do. When the idea of arming themselves surfaced, Joel Sy Egco, a national defense and police reporter for Manila Standard Today, responded, "Why not?"

Over the next 48 hours, cellular phones buzzed as plans for ARMED – Association of Responsible Media – took shape. "When we finally met and agreed to protect ourselves, we sent a very strong message to potential killers: 'You should be careful the next time you come for us. We are going to fight back,'" says Egco, who owns four guns and grew up shooting for sport.

From the beginning, ARMED had the support of the Philippine National Police and Armed Services, which have offered advice on personal security and helped with weapons training.

The scene that I watched at the firing range was jarring: a soldier training journalists to be combatants. But it's simply the practical thing to do, says Col. Carlos B. Holganza, who supports the idea of armed journalists. "We know we cannot secure everyone, so we decided to help [journalists] secure themselves," he says.

On May 18, Pablo Hernandez, a popular columnist with the tabloid Bulgar (which translates to Exposé), provided the opening salvo for ARMED when he returned fire with his Uzi submachine gun to ward off motorcycle-riding assassins in a Manila suburb.

During an August visit, I interviewed victims' families, media experts and reporters who continue to file stories despite the never-ending cycle of attacks. One of them, Mei Magsino, has been on the run since July 7, when trusted sources warned that convicted murderers had been released from a provincial jail with orders to kill her. (See "Forced into Hiding.") The journalists talked about surviving in an environment of corruption and conflict where hit men can be hired for as little as $100.

"It's changing for the worse," says Rachel Khan, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila. "The death threats are at a high right now."

The violence, says Khan, has spread beyond small media outlets in the provinces to the capital city. Two prominent journalists in Manila, one of them the editor of a high-profile investigative magazine, recently received death threats.

None of this surprises Egco, the founder and president of ARMED and the father of four, who packs a .45-caliber pistol and a box of bullets when he heads to work each day.

"If someone is firing at us and we can't escape," he says, "we should fire back."

American editors have traditionally enforced strict rules against newsroom personnel arming themselves. A gun-toting journalist in a war zone could be confused with a soldier or spy. And carrying a weapon seems to violate the notion that a journalist should be a neutral observer, not part of the story.

"We just don't pack" guns, says Jim Cox, senior assignment editor for world news at USA Today. "If one of our reporters felt he or she was in such jeopardy that a personal weapon was required, we'd basically say, 'It's time to leave the zone.'"

But what if "the zone" is the journalist's own backyard? In the hills and jungles of the Philippines, ringleaders behind the assassinations might attend the same church as the reporter; their kids might ride the same school bus. In several instances, the suspects were well known to the victim's family.

Should Filipino reporters be pilloried for sidestepping the journalistic commandment "thou shall not bear arms" when members of the media clearly are being stalked?

Two dramatic episodes played out earlier this year, further muddying the waters. On May 4, Cantoneros fired back at his attackers and still was gunned down. Police found his .45-caliber pistol in his hand, casings scattered nearby. On the other hand, Hernandez saved his life by carrying his Uzi and being ready to respond when attacked.

"I believe it is wrong to carry weapons, but I have never been targeted the way Philippine journalists have been," says Donatella Lorch, who has reported on combat for Newsweek, the New York Times and NBC News. "Philippine journalists are faced by a whole different set of rules than American journalists in terms of danger. Nothing is black and white anymore."

But Lorch, director of the Knight International Press Fellowships, also sees pitfalls: "Once you are armed, do you put people around you in danger? What if you shoot someone who is innocent? How are you going to live with that for the rest of your life? Pulling out a gun makes you more of a target."

A controversy over the issue flared in late December 2003 when the Wall Street Journal reported that New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins carried a pistol while on assignment in Iraq (see Drop Cap, April/May 2004). In the wake of the episode the Times reexamined its policy and issued a strongly worded statement making clear that Times journalists were not to arm themselves. "The carrying of a weapon, for whatever reason, jeopardizes a journalist's status as a neutral," the paper said.

Gary Hill, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, isn't prepared to issue a sweeping condemnation of Filipino journalists for their defensive posture. "Trying to look at it dispassionately, it's difficult when life and death is at stake," says Hill, news manager at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.

"When you take up arms, are you able to maintain an independent posture? Is it purely a defensive move or are you literally taking up arms against one side or the other? Reasonable people are going to disagree about this."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines opposes having its members bear arms. NUJP chair Inday Varona sees it as an act of desperation and further evidence of the government's failure to protect the media. Abi Wright, CPJ's Asia program director, also blames authorities who fail to enforce get-tough policies against those who target the media.

After a July trip, Wright concluded, "This is such a complex issue. I don't think we are in a position to make recommendations to journalists in the Philippines about whether or not to carry arms."

Some of the murders have focused an international spotlight on the bloodletting. One of the most sensational was the assassination on July 31, 2004, of Roger Mariano, 44, a feisty radio commentator and father of eight children.

Before signing off on his Saturday night program in a station in the northernmost province of Laoag, Mariano announced that he was on the brink of breaking a major story. Then he hopped onto his Yamaha motorcycle and began the 10-mile drive home.

The crusading broadcaster wore his trademark belt bag, which contained a disk with information about irregularities at a local electric company.

According to police reports, three assailants in a white van ambushed Mariano as he drove down a lonely stretch of road. Spent shells from an M-16 automatic rifle were found at the crime scene. His motorcycle flipped into a rice paddy; his bullet-riddled body lay crumpled under an acacia tree.

In August, Mariano's niece Lauren Gail Polintang sat in a fast-food eatery fighting tears and describing what happened that night. "The killers removed my uncle's helmet to make sure they had the right man. Then they fired bullets into his head," said Polintang, who acts as the family spokeswoman. "When I saw his body I couldn't believe it was my uncle."

Mariano's wristwatch and wallet were untouched. Only the belt bag, containing a cellular phone, tape recorder, tapes and the disk, was missing. Despite a string of death threats that often alarmed his wife, her uncle never carried a gun, Polintang said. She spoke lovingly of a man who, although the youngest of six siblings, was the patriarch of the family and a second father to her.

While many cases have been virtually ignored, authorities made a public show of tracking Mariano's killers. Polintang attributes that to her uncle's standing in the journalism community and pressure from global media organizations that lodged a barrage of protests with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's office.

Two suspects are in custody, but the case is on hold as the Mariano family awaits a ruling on a change of venue. Polintang is convinced the proceedings will be rigged and the killers exonerated if the trial is held in Laoag.

Roger Mariano was the first of two journalists to die during a five-day span in 2004. The second was Arnell Manalo, a reporter and a radio announcer shot on August 5 by motorcycle-riding gunmen in Batangas province. By year's end, the toll stood at 13.

In some cases, even eyewitnesses to the killings have been marked for death.

Edgar Domalerio, 32, an award-winning broadcast journalist who reported on corruption and crime in the port city of Pagadian, was assassinated on May 13, 2002. In an unusual turn of events, three eyewitnesses came forward to identify a local police officer as the shooter.

The Domalerio case proved that speaking out can be a death sentence. Jury Lovitana was killed in an ambush three months after he volunteered to testify. Schoolteacher Edgar Amoro was gunned down in February of this year despite being in a witness protection program. Only one of the eyewitnesses, Edgar Ongue, has survived; he is in hiding under 24-hour guard.

That a police officer was identified as the killer did not come as a surprise. "In half of the cases, mayors and local government officials were mentioned as masterminds, and police officers were actually hired to commit the crimes," CPJ's Wright wrote in an August report.

That was the case in the murder of broadcaster Elpidio Binoya of General Santos City. A mayor was listed among suspects who ordered thugs to abduct and beat Binoya 10 days before he was gunned down. Binoya was in the process of filing charges against his assailants and had an affidavit tucked into his shirt when he was murdered in June 2004. One of the two men arrested was a former police intelligence officer.

Binoya built his broadcasting career siding with the underdog, particularly in labor disputes. His stinging radio commentaries earned him a long list of political enemies, his wife says. At times, he shoved neutrality aside to support politicians who championed his causes.

At a seaside resort outside of General Santos City, Mary Grace Binoya described the void in her life and the hardship for her teenage son, who was so grief-stricken he missed a year of school.

The widow recalled her husband as an accomplished cook, arriving home from his small radio station and heading to the kitchen to simmer cow's knuckles into a rich soup. "Now there is nobody to wait for in the afternoon; nobody to tell my problems to. I have lost my hope," she said as her son, 15, stood stoically at her side. The two exist on a pension of less than $50 a month and receive some help for the boy's education through the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists.

Binoya begged her husband to back off attacking local officials, but "he always was addicted to his work. He would not stop," she said.

The staggering toll on loved ones took center stage when Marlene Esperat, 45, was murdered on March 24 in Tacurong, Mindanao. On Holy Thursday evening, the columnist for the Midland Review dismissed her bodyguards early so they could go home for the Easter holiday. She was dining with her family when a lone assassin crept into the house, and according to police, greeted her with "Good evening" as he fired a shot into Esperat's head, killing her instantly as her children stared in horror.

Esperat's husband believes her murder was linked to her story accusing a police official of involvement in illegal logging activities. All four suspects arrested, including an army intelligence operative, have pleaded not guilty. Esperat's family has been placed in a witness protection program; the case remains bogged down in legal wrangling.

Esperat's name now appears among the 69 journalists who have been killed in the line of duty since 1986, when democracy was restored to the Philippines.

Some regions of this expansive country of 82 million, an archipelago consisting of more than 7,000 islands, are particularly lethal for the media. The deadliest is the poverty-plagued, crime-rife island of Mindanao, where seven journalists have been murdered in the past five years. Reporters have to sidestep rebels from the communist New Peoples Army and Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A U.S. State Department report warns of kidnappings, bombings and insurgencies in this region and advises Americans to stay away.

General Santos City, a port known for its rich tuna industry and skyrocketing crime rate, is a trouble spot on Mindanao. Even fast-food restaurants and boutiques have armed guards.

The siege mentality begins at the squalid airport, where arrivals are greeted by men in black uniforms with "bomb squad" emblazoned across their backs, restraining snarling dogs on leashes. Outside, soldiers flank the walkway, cradling massive guns that look straight out of a Star Wars movie.

Rommel Rebollido, vice chair of the local chapter of the journalists' union, set up meetings for me with veteran newsmen, who talked about how they have survived the hostile environment.

Three brothers who run the Mindanao Bulletin and several colleagues drove to a firing range on the outskirts of town, alongside rice paddies and thick tropical greenery. Like their counterparts in Manila, they are divided on whether they should take up arms.

Rebollido, who reports for the Philippines News Agency, a state-run wire service, is against carrying a weapon and declined an invitation to attend a media-sponsored target practice earlier this year. He fears that when the journalists start firing pistols, thugs will simply turn to bigger guns.

The others, however, eagerly teamed up with a trainer from the Philippine Practical Shooting Association to hone their skills that afternoon. In July, a photo of 30 journalists who had participated in marksmanship training was featured on the front of the Bulletin, putting would-be assassins on notice.

Members of the local media talked about what it is like to live under a threat of brutality that, like the volcanoes around them, could erupt at any time. One of the brothers, Joseph Tubelag, remembers when hired killers stalked him. Police offered bodyguards, but he refused. "I could not move freely with a police escort; I could not do my job. That's when I requested I be given a permit to carry a handgun in my own protection."

It is not uncommon to flip open a cell phone here, click on text message and find "You're dead" or "I know where to find you" sent from an unknown number. Evaluating the seriousness of threats has become an art; survival techniques are woven into the fabric of daily existence.

Rebollido, who had just returned from covering provincial elections, and Andy Cruz, a radio announcer for a Catholic Church-owned station, described techniques that include varying routes to and from the newsroom and creating buddy systems to "watch each other's backs," as Cruz put it.

Cell phone text messaging has become the main warning system for journalists, who check on each other by tapping in messages such as "R U OK?" If there is no response, an alert goes out to other journalists.

When Cruz leaves a meeting, he doesn't say goodbye, he just disappears, in case he is being stalked or monitored by cell phone users who might relay his location. If he is invited to dinner and someone asks what time he will arrive, the pat answer is, "Oh, I'll just be there." He advises providing only the minimum amount of information.

Some maintain two phones, one for business, the other unlisted and solely for private conversations. If a mysterious number pops up on caller ID, Cruz might opt not to answer or remain silent until the person offers identification. Rebollido opened his cell phone and clicked to a number under the label "death threat." After a friend received an ominous message from that number, it was circulated among the group for tracking purposes. That way, if it shows up again they will have a better chance of figuring out what triggered the caller's anger and who might be making the threat.

Does operating in a survival mode ever wear thin? "You get used to it. You have to or you will have a nervous breakdown. I'd rather be shot; it's more honorable," jokes Cruz, who maintains safe houses where he can disappear when circumstances warrant.

Like many Filipinos, the radio commentator grew up shooting for sport. As for carrying a weapon on the job, "I decide this on a case-by-case basis. I do not love to carry guns. If the threat is serious enough, yes, I might."

During interviews, reporters were quick to point out that corruption exists within their own ranks. Some accept bribes for killing stories or ushering them into prime-time slots. In some instances, they play a dual role, functioning as public relations agents for the political candidates they cover. Poor working conditions, paltry salaries and a lack of professional standards contribute to the dubious behavior.

Loudmouth radio commentators – the Filipino version of "shock jocks" – bang brass gongs and spew venom against public officials without evidence to justify the outrageous charges. "The amount of rage and bile on the air is dangerous," Carlos Conde, the secretary-general of the journalists' union, told CPJ.

What hope do the Filipino media have? Many believe that relief will come only when greater pressure is exerted on the Arroyo government to enforce get-tough policies for arresting, convicting and imprisoning those who target the media. Filipino journalists have turned to global watchdogs for solidarity and support. Many, like CPJ and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, have sent fact-finding teams and lodged protests.

In June 2004, Arroyo launched Task Force Newsmen, an investigative unit of the Philippine National Police dedicated to solving the murders of journalists. Earlier this year, she contributed 5 million pesos, around $92,500, to a press freedom fund to help fight attacks against the press and reward those who turn in killers. Still, there has not been a single conviction.

Attacks and threats continue, most suspects remain at large and ringleaders are left untouched. Filipino journalists themselves may have to combat this peculiar brand of terrorism.

The NUJP organizes protest marches to draw attention to the killings and maintains a "threat hotline" for journalists in trouble.

Some news managers are turning to professional security companies. In August, after she received a black funeral wreath and an ominous note, Glenda Gloria, managing editor of the investigative magazine Newsbreak, hired experts to sweep the office for bugs and advise her employees on security techniques. "We felt the threat was serious enough that we had to take action," she said in an interview at Manila's Intercontinental Hotel. "Things are very different now, even compared to a year ago. The stakes are higher."

Joel Sy Egco views the fledgling Association for Responsible Media as a rallying point to raise morale and help build confidence in the embattled Filipino press corps. The group is planning more gun safety seminars and training in threat analysis and countersurveillance techniques. "We need to know when we are being followed and when our communications are being tapped," says Egco, who disavows any notion of journalists turning into gun-slinging vigilantes.

A "shootfest" on May 26 drew about 100 journalists to a firing range near Manila. On June 27, journalists gathered in 13 provinces for target practice orchestrated by ARMED in cooperation with local gun clubs. "Gone are the days when journalists just raise their hands in submission before being shot," Egco says. "You shoot one of us now and all hell breaks loose." He says that "helping our members know when and how to react to threats will be ARMED's greatest legacy."

And, he adds, he will know prospects for his profession have brightened when "we can lay our guns down, when we are not stalked or killed anymore."

Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about coverage of homeland security in the United States in AJR's August/September issue.