By SEVEN STANDEN
A prominent journalist, Percival Mabasa, was shot dead on 3 October while driving around Manila, in what media groups and activists have called a blow to press freedom. The radio journalist (63) was killed by two assailants — who haven’t yet been identified or located — after they fired two shots into Mabasa’s head. While police officials say they’re still trying to determine the motivation behind the attack, Mabasa was critical of both the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, during his broadcasting career as ‘Percy Lapid’. Due to the nature of Mabasa’s job, the assassination has raised concerns about press freedom in the Philippines, with Amnesty International saying that his death “bears all the hallmarks of an extrajudicial execution and an attempt to silence voices critical of the government”.
Starting his career in the early 1980s, Mabasa became better known in recent years for his willingness to criticise officials directly for alleged corruption and hostility toward civil rights. His success as a straight-shooting radio host meant that he had accumulated 200,000 subscribers on his YouTube Channel by the time of his death. As well as having a huge online presence, Mabasa was well-known within Metro Manila, which was incidentally where he was shot and killed. The timing and location of his death has heightened fear among other Filipino journalists, as it was believed that ambush killings were more likely in the provinces and that the capital city was safe. However, people are now arguing that there should be more protection for journalists.
Mabasa’s death isn’t the first to be attributed to the suppression of journalism this year. In September, the radio journalist Rey Blanco was fatally stabbed in central Manila and earlier, in July, radio commentator Federico “Ding” Gempesaw was shot dead in broad daylight. While the Philippines was previously considered one of the best Asian countries with regard to press freedom, journalists faced intense hostility and violence throughout Duterte’s presidency, due to his routine attacks on the press. Though, it wasn’t only under his administration. According to the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, at least 187 journalists have been killed in the past 35 years in the Philippines. While the Office of the Press Secretary for the Marcos administration claimed it “recognises and respects press freedom”, the assassinations of several journalists since his presidency began have caused activists to question the legitimacy of this statement. It may not compare to the suppression of the press in other parts of Asia, but the recurring problems demonstrate that Mabasa’s death isn’t an isolated incident and that journalism has continuously been under threat for the last three decades in the Philippines.
However, there has recently been a political shift following the country’s presidential elections back in May, after the Marcos-Duterte ticket demonstrated the success of dynasty politics. Both President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Vice-President Sara Duterte come from powerful families, with both of their fathers previously serving as president, signifying the continued decline of democracy and worsening inequalities in the Philippines. During the transition of presidential power, following the election period, there was an increase in attacks on press freedom— including the death of Gempesaw. More than two dozen sites were blocked and accused of having links to “Communist-Terrorist Groups”, shortly after Marcos became president, and several media organisations were targeted by National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).
Luis V Teodoro, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) trustee, compared the previous president to the current one: “under Duterte, press freedom was systematically attacked as punishment to those the regime didn’t like… there are no signs this policy will change with the new administration”.
While Mabasa’s death has drawn significant attention to the plight of journalists, under both former and current presidencies in the Philippines, no action has been taken to protect the press freedom that remains. It raises the question of how many people have to die before political corruption is taken seriously, as well as making it clear that international legislation should be in place to guarantee the safety of journalists. The future of the Philippines remains murky and unclear in the meantime, with the current President and Vice-President being the children of oppressive regime leaders and keen to make their own mark on the country’s history. However, one thing is crystal clear: Percival Mabasa won’t be the last victim of the administration.
Image: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State