New sense of optimism as the Philippines launches first national Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists

On the eve of the Ampatuan Massacre where 32 journalists were murdered on the island of Mindanao in 2009, the Philippines became the first country in the world to launch a national Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists.

On 19 December 2019, almost one month later, five members of the Ampatuan family were sentenced for the killings, allowing surviving family to find some justice after a decade of waiting. The massacre which took place in November 2009, has scarred the Philippine media community and contributed to an unsafe media environment needing urgent attention.

For this reason, on 22 November, the Philippines’ first national Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists was launched in a packed hall in central Manila, presented to over 100 representatives from media, government, diplomacy, international and local organisations. The Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication has led the development of the plan together with International Media Support (IMS) and involved media stakeholders across the country. The plan stretches five years from 2020-2024.

The Philippines Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists is the result of countrywide consultations between media, government, police, academia, and local and international civil society organisations. It provides a much needed roadmap for improving the safety of journalists. Since 1986, the Philippines has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. There have been 165 work-related cases of journalist killings and frequent reports of physical and digital attacks and threats.

“The plan began in the minds of enraged Filipinos. From the beginning it was clear that the plan would go beyond the project implementers. This was bigger than any of us, broader than just media,“ said Ms. Ann Lourdes C. Lopez, Director of Research, Policy and Advocacy Unit, Asian Institute for Journalism and Communication (AIJC), in her description of how the plan was developed.

“Inclusive process a win in itself”
The diversity of the media stakeholders who have managed to agree on a joint response to media safety is a major achievement and the result of long and hard negotiations to find common ground. 

“No other country has managed what media stakeholders in the Philippines have achieved together – to agree on the need to work together to create a safer environment for male and female journalists that will allow them to produce accurate and relevant journalism that citizens and decisionmakers need in order to make informed decisions,” Lars Bestle, Head of IMS’ Department for Asia.

The plan was developed as part of the Safeguarding Press Freedom in the Philippines Project funded by the European Union, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNESCO.  IMS and Asia Institute for Journalism and Communication forged partnerships with Filippino media organisations to form the Journalist Safety Advisory Group (JSAG) which will monitor the plan’s progress, moving forward. The plan sets out a roadmap for addressing five concrete flagship areas deemed crucial to improving the safety of journalists and the media environment in the Philippines over the next five years. The areas include: Integrity and professionalism; conducive working conditions; safety and protection mechanisms; criminal justice system; and public information, journalism education and research.

“What we need now is everybody’s commitment to the sustainability of the plan,” Ramon Tuazon, President of the Asian Institute for Journalism and Communication, explained. “Important lessons have been learned during the crafting of the plan. Planning and implementation should be inclusive, engaging not only the media, but the three branches of government and civil society. The planning process is as important as the plan itself. The inclusive process we have been through is for us already a big win.”

The EU, which has backed the process from the beginning, emphasized the milestone that had been reached.

“This can be a very good role model for other countries to emulate,” said Mr. Rafael de Bustamante Tello, First Councillor and Political Officer at the Delegation of the European Union in the Philippines. “The crafting of the Plan of Action reflects a lot of strong resolve and a unity of the minds and spirits among the members of the fourth estate, authorities, CSOs and other stakeholders.  This show of force and consensus can help stop the attacks and violence.”

From global to local
The backing of the EU, as well as UNESCO, has played an important role in linking up the process of developing a safety action plan in the Philippines with experience from other countries facing similar challenges with attacks on media.

Together with UNESCO, International Media Support has been deeply involved in unfolding the vision that was laid out in the UNESCO-led UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity launched in 2012. The UN Plan of Action has since provided a guiding framework for efforts to establish safety and protection mechanisms in a handful countries, although none have come as far as the Philippines.

What is a safety mechanism for journalists? In essence, it is a combination of prevention, protection and prosecution measures that make up either a formal state-led or an informal civil society-led system – or a mix of both. Many countries have individual safety tools and systems in place like training of journalists or telephone hotlines and legal support services – but none as such that are part of a concerted national plan with official buy-in from the government. In Pakistan, for example, five press clubs across the country function as safety hubs that journalists in distress can turn to for legal advice and support. In Afghanistan, there is a more community-based localised approach to the safety of journalists where safety trainings for male and female journalists are tailored to local needs and dialogue is sought with local authorities and power holders to strengthen journalists’ safety.    

Getting the job done
The commitment of the Philippine government to the plan remains vital to its success. Government representative Assistant Secretary and Chief of Staff, Department of Justice, Mr. Neal Vincent M. Bainto, thus spoke at the November launch of the plan, recognising the need to safeguard journalists in their work.

“There is no doubt that the media performs a delicate role in the system of checks and balances in our government. Media brings to light shady dealings in the interest of many. The media holds to account those who break laws and standards. And so they often become the natural enemies of those who refuse to be held accountable to our people[]. PTFoMs [Presidential Task Force on Media Security] not only investigates attacks on media. The Secretary of Justice is the head of the Taskforce,” he said.

In light of his promising words, many will undoubtedly watch closely for the government to honour their words and commitment to the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists. Ahead awaits the hardest part for the many stakeholders involved and the Journalist Safety Advisory Group – finding common ground and getting the job done.      

 “We need to work together, work with new ideas thinking out of the box and ideas tried and tested to improve the present state of the safety of journalists,” said Ming Kuok, UNESCO Special Advisor in Jakarta, in his closing remarks. “UNESCO and the UN family are here for the long haul – to support the Philippines in this plan. Despite their differences, all groups including PTFOMMS must continue to improve their cooperation – to find common ground through common understanding of press freedom.

“Listening, disagreeing, but without being disagreeable.”