The two assassins were waiting for Renante Cortes outside his radio studio in the central Philippines city of Cebu. Cortes finished his breakfast programme, left the building and was shot dead on the street outside just before 9am. The gunmen sped away on a motorbike.
‘Rey’ Cortes was known for upsetting people. His programme was called Engkwentro, meaning “clash” in the Philippine national language Tagalog, and he had been sued and threatened many times by people he accused of wrongdoing. His wife said he had recently received renewed threats. On 22 July 2021, he was silenced forever.
No one has been charged with his murder. In fact, little was done about the killing until journalists and human rights groups began to call out the authorities. A local press freedom group, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council, lobbied the police to open an investigation.
Media intimidation is a long-standing problem in the Philippines, rooted in a political system in which big families rule local fiefs and investigators can be induced to turn a blind eye. The most outrageous episode came in 2009 when gunmen linked to the Ampatuan family, which controlled Maguindanao province, murdered 34 journalists accompanying the election campaign of a political rival. It took a decade to finally convict the family members responsible.
Those murders triggered a global campaign to prosecute those responsible for attacks on the media. In 2013, the UN General Assembly voted to declare 2 November its International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The UN has said the date chosen for the annual commemoration was in honour of two French journalists killed in Mali on 2 November 2013.
Guilherme Canela, head of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at the UN’s cultural organisation, UNESCO, said there is still a long way to go to end the frequent absence of consequences for crimes against journalists.
“The level of impunity for killings of journalists remains extremely high globally, with an impunity rate of 87% since 2006,” he noted with regret. To put it another way, 87% of the killers of journalists have escaped prosecution for their crimes.
Authorities in the Philippines denied a request from the national Commission on Human Rights (CHR) for a copy of the report detailing the police investigation into the killing of Cortes, according to executive director Jacqueline Ann de Guia. Nonetheless, “we at the CHR will not shrink away from our duties to investigate” this and other killings of media workers in the Philippines, she said.
The Philippines has the most vibrant media culture in Southeast Asia, but also the most threatened. The range of publications and viewpoints is immense, but Cortes was one of five journalists who have been killed there in the past two years, more than the rest of the region combined during the same period, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based NGO.
Violence and threats of violence against journalists are common in several Southeast Asian countries
The horrific tally in the Philippines rose again on 31 October. Orlando Dinoy, a reporter for Newsline Philippines and an Energy FM anchor, was killed over the weekend by a gunman who shot Dinoy six times in his apartment, The Straits Times reported.
“One of the angles we are looking at is his work as a media man,” police Major Peter Glenn Ipong said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has blamed president Rodrigo Duterte for “fuelling impunity and attacks against our ranks” and noted that, just a few days after winning the 2016 election, Duterte said: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
The next year, four media workers were killed in the Philippines alone, among 26 murders of journalists in the Asia Pacific region.
Stung by the backlash to his remarks from CPJ and others, Duterte established a Presidential Task Force on Media Security. It has not stopped the killings.
While the number of killings within the region may be greatest in the Philippines, violence and threats of violence against journalists are common in several Southeast Asian countries.
This year’s coup in Myanmar has been a particular disaster for media freedom, according to Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He said the military junta that took power in February is deliberately using violence to silence reporting and criticism.
“Dozens of journalists have been beaten before being arrested while they were covering anti-coup protests, with a total impunity,” Bastard said, adding that he believes the impunity extends to the prison system. “The systematic beatings and mistreatment in jail will certainly go unpunished.”
The situation may be less extreme elsewhere in the region, but journalists still find themselves targeted by governments intent on suppressing critical reporting. Yiamyut Sutthichaya, an assistant editor of Thai news site Prachatai English, said he and his colleagues have suffered this form of violent mistreatment.
“Physically, we have been affected by the police protest crackdown,” he said. “As intensity and use of force increased, journalists have been hurt by rubber bullets and tear gas from the police despite us clearly declaring ourselves as the media.”
UNESCO’s Canela said the focus of this year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists is “the importance of investigating and prosecuting threats of violence against journalists.”
The challenge for supporters of media freedom is convincing governments and legal authorities to seriously pursue investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for violence against journalists, whether they are individual assassins, local politicians or the state’s own law enforcement officers.
Ultimately, the problem is a political one. If governments are not inclined to protect press freedom and if a country’s courts are not independent of the government, even a rules-based legal system will fail to defend dissenting voices against politicians in power. Without respect for the spirit of the law, there is no real compulsion for courts – or indeed the police – to act impartially.
Some of the responsibility falls to journalists themselves, Canela said.
“The media’s investigation of a killed journalist can be helpful to reopen cases or resume investigations,” Canela noted. “Journalists’ professional associations should also work more closely with national authorities, law enforcement and the international community to foster a dialogue that can keep the momentum on the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.”
The team at Prachatai English believes that, given these constraints, pressure must come from below. Sutthichaya said the public should push governments to commit to UNESCO’s five press freedom conventions. This strategy would “put the state under some sort of pressure to be more friendly to media work,” he said.
In most Southeast Asian countries, however, the public has little ability to organise and protest. The most effective pressure to comply, therefore, is likely to come from abroad.
In the past, commitments to freedom of expression and the rule of law have been fundamental parts of partnership agreements with the European Union and other democracies. China is less interested in such conditions, and its economic and diplomatic policies over the past decade have given Southeast Asian countries the ability to reject Western pressure. The result has been a narrowing of media freedom.
Governments in Southeast Asia see few benefits in protecting the right of journalists to critically examine the effectiveness of their policies or the probity of their business affairs. They have little incentive to tackle the problem of impunity for those who use or threaten violence against the media.
“For many journalists in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Thailand, the only way to escape potential physical violence is to avoid tackling sensitive issues,” Bastard of RSF said.
In Cebu, the search for the killers of Rey Cortes continues. The police have set up a Special Investigation Task Group, but there is little information to go on. The human rights commission is determined to see the case solved but has scant grounds for optimism.
The problem of impunity for crimes against journalists persists in Southeast Asia. From Cebu in the Philippines to Yangon in Myanmar and beyond, the challenge of protecting media workers from violence is becoming ever more difficult.
Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London. He previously was a BBC reporter in Vietnam and trained local journalists in Myanmar from 2013 to 2014.