AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Forced Into Hiding   

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

The reporter made an attempt at a disguise, a cap pulled down to eye level with her long hair tucked out of sight, as she boarded a bus on the outskirts of Manila. Two hours later, she sipped cappuccino in the corner of a nearly deserted restaurant, describing what it is like to be hunted by assassins.

For Mei Magsino-Lubis, 30, the nightmare began around 10 p.m., July 7, when a source sent a cellular text message warning her that two convicted murderers had been released from a provincial jail with orders to kill her. The advice: "Get out now."

She grabbed clothes, an ATM card, some cash and a folder of documents and fled into the night, leaving her husband of nine months wondering if he would see her again alive.

The correspondent for the influential Philippine Daily Inquirer feared that if hit men stormed the house, her husband and in-laws, who shared the same compound, would be in danger. Calling the police wasn't an option in a region rife with bribery. Instead, a car and driver, supplied by a friend, swept her away from the provincial capital of Batangas City, located south of Manila.

Magsino-Lubis had written a series of hard-hitting stories linking a powerful governor to illegal gambling and a host of other irregularities. One report focused on the May 30 murder of an official who also was investigating the governor's activities.

"All my emotions have been centered on how to survive," says Magsino-Lubis, who has been in eight safe houses since July 7. "The first week I was paranoid to the point of going crazy. I couldn't eat or sleep; I lost 10 pounds." She lined up empty bottles in front of the door so "I would know if they were coming for me."

Out of desperation, she contacted the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines for help. "They offered to hide me in one of their convents; a priest had the idea of dressing me up like a nun." She didn't take them up on the offer.

The horrific ordeal threw her marriage into turmoil. At first, her husband suggested an annulment to help keep his family out of the firing line. Now, he is supportive and talks about them leaving the country to visit relatives in the United States. He and Magsino-Lubis communicate daily by text messaging, but they have not seen each other since she fled.

During the interview in August, Magsino-Lubis rifled through a green folder, producing a photo of one of the "goons," as she calls them, believed to be stalking her, and the license number of a royal blue Toyota seen outside her home before the threats surfaced. She has traced the plate and knows the name of the owner.

She shows clips of her stories and notes on the possible assassins. "If something happens to me, this might be used to bring them to justice," she says dispassionately, as if writing a lead for her own obituary. She keeps in touch with her bureau chief daily and tries to file one story a week, which appears without a byline.

Has she considered getting a gun? "At first, I did, but I don't really believe in carrying a weapon... I would be stooping to their level."

She knows it's time to switch safe houses, she says, "when I start to get paranoid or when I think my host is getting scared because I am there. Some have come out and told me it was time to go. I can't blame them."

On August 4, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued an alert outlining the threats against her. Rachel Khan of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility believes the reporter's best bet may be to move to another region of the Philippines.

"I don't feel they would target her if she no longer was a threat," says Khan. Even if Magsino-Lubis collects enough evidence to file a case against her tormenter, "not much would come of it," predicts Khan. "If he is an illegal gambling lord, then he would be able to pull strings to make the chances for justice very, very slim."

Late in the afternoon, the diminutive denim-clad reporter pulled on her cap and issued a parting comment: "The list of murdered journalists here is too long. I have to survive," she said. "I don't want to become another statistic."