It’s a sickening time to be a journalist in the Philippines.
At least 30 local reporters were among 57 people killed last week after being abducted and shot in the volatile south of the country, allegedly by the private army of a powerful Muslim clan that rules Maguindanao province.
Other journalists remain in hiding in the south, amid anonymous threats being sent to local media organisations that they will also be killed if they report negatively on the Ampatuan clan that has been linked to the massacre.
The Philippines is now regarded by global media rights groups as the most dangerous place in the world to work — ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
More than 80 journalists have been killed since President Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001.
It’s an unacceptable number but each time a reporter dies the government ignores calls to change the culture of impunity among the powerful who carry out the murders.
The reporters killed in Maguindanao were travelling in a convoy of six vehicles with the female relatives and lawyers of a local politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, who were on their way to register him as a candidate for provincial governor in next year’s elections.
Dozens of gunmen stopped the convoy, shot everyone in the cars and buried them in prepared mass graves or dumped them on the side of a road in a remote farming region.
Mangudadatu says one member of the rival Ampatuan clan organised the killings to stop him from running for governor.
Prosecutors have given no motive yet but have charged Andal Ampatuan Jnr, a local mayor who had his eyes on the governorship, with 25 counts of murder so far.
His father, the current governor of the province and an Arroyo ally who was grooming his son to take the post, plus at least four other clan members, are likely to face charges, according to police.
Maguindanao province is part of Mindanao island, where about 150,000 people have died since the late 1970s due to an insurgency by Muslim rebels who want their own homeland.
Parts of Mindanao are lawless and no-go areas for Philippine journalists.
Kidnappings for ransom, political murders and terrorist attacks occur almost monthly.
One of the most infamous groups on Mindanao are the Abu Sayyaf, listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation.
Yet until the November 23 killings, Philippine journalists believed there were a set of unwritten rules in Mindanao.
A media badge would not protect you from the Abu Sayyaf or the most ruthless elements in Mindanao, but it should at least protect you from political feuds.
Certainly, 30 journalists travelling in a pack would not be executed, not even by the Abu Sayyaf.
“The game has changed, a media badge no longer protects you from anyone in Mindanao,” a Filipino journalist told me.
A group of media groups in the Philippines — including the National Union of Journalists, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines and some daily newspapers — have set up a group called the “November 23 Movement, named after the date of the massacres.
The movement’s aim is to achieve justice for the victims’ relatives, and what I believe is a sadly futile effort to change the putrid mix of corruption, greed and violence in Philippine politics.
“The brutal, indiscriminate mass murder… raises the ultimate challenge of conscience,” the movement said in a statement.
“It carries the culture of impunity at work in this country to such levels of horror that, if it remains unpunished for long, can send the nation into an inexorable descent into absolute dehumanisation.
“The crime thus calls for swift justice, which can only be achieved through a credible and independent process, which in turn can only be achieved without the hand of this government — a government justly mistrusted generally and openly friendly precisely to the very members of the clan accused in the massacre.”
In this blog, journalists of global news wire AFP blog about the news they report and the challenges they face covering events from Baghdad to Beijing, the White House to Darfur. Karl Malakunas is AFP bureau chief in Manila.