The only sensible Filipino take on the International Day to End Impunity

So today is supposed to be some kind of “International Day to End Impunity”. I hear some folks are making the little factoid that this “event” coincides with the Maguindanao Massacre (no, that is not the title of a 1980’s Filipino movie) something to add credence to the Filipino’s place of honour in commemorating such an occasion.

So 32 journalists were killed in Maguindanao two years ago (the fact that these were journalists probably accounts for the place the story holds in the hierarchy of priority stories that take up Media space and minutes). That, of course, is something to grieve and express outrage about on a national scale. Perhaps the attention it gets is so considering how death on such a scale can happen within such a short span of time — and one that involves journalists no less.

32 “media workers” is what columnist Michael Tan said were “included” in that massacre two years ago today. But see as I recall — and wrote about — back then, there were 57 victims. What disturbs me is that I see a lot of 32’s being quoted in the various blurbs coming out of the damp woodwork today but not much of the 57’s. Is it because 32 is the more significant number to cite?

Here is what I think and what I think now hasn’t changed since the time I wrote my piece about this massacre back in 2010:

Frankly I fail to be impressed by all the huffing and puffing about how “shocking” the massacre of 57 people is allegedly in the hands of warlord Andal Ampatuan Jr. I also fail to be impressed by the people who are grandstanding about calls for “justice” and close public scrutiny of (and the proposed televising) of the trial of the Ampatuans. Add to that, by the way, I don’t really give a rat’s arse about how many of these 57 were “journalists”. To me they were all people — period.

For me, those who died in Maguindanao are, quite simply, people. Perhaps this is a difficult concept to comprehend in a society where credentials, titles, and names bristling with prefixes and suffixes trump humanity. And when we start regarding the victims of the Maguindanao massacre as such — as people — it provides a bit more perspective around what it means for a Filipino to presume to talk about “ending impunity”.

The Philippines, lest we forget, is a country — a society — where preventable deaths at jaw-dropping scales are quite ordinary.

From the perspective of election-related violence, I showed back then that 57 dead is not really the extraodinary number it is made out to be in the Philippines. Election-related and politically-motivated acts, whether they are heinous crimes like these or banal acts of stupidity are endemic in Philippine society. One study laid out the following statistics over a number of Philippine election years:

1988 elections — 188 dead

1992 elections — 89 dead

1995 elections — 108 dead

1998 elections — 77 dead

2001 elections — 98 dead

In terms of absolute numbers, ignoring for a moment its ratio to the number of perpetrators involved, 57 (perhaps among other unsung victims killed in 2009) stacks up quite conservatively with our renowned collective track record of election violence. I dare say, the only thing that makes the Maguindanao massacre remarkable is that it was a large number of victims perpetrated by only one man (or one clan, as the case may be).

Then again, is 57 killed by one man or one political clan really that remarkable in the Philippine setting?

When we do a bit of thinking outside the little square framed for lesser minds by our honourable oligarchs in the Philippine Media, we will consider how from 1987 through to 2008, a single shipping company — Sulpicio Lines Inc (SLI) — was a common denominator underlying the preventable deaths of at least 10,000 people at sea. Let’s say for argument’s sake, that SLI employs 50 senior management personnel and that every one of them can be deemed accountable for those deaths. That’s a victim-to-perpetrator ratio of 200-to-1. It is a ratio that dwarfs Andal Ampatuan’s alleged accountability for the deaths of 57 people.

Look around for a minute and take stock of the Media buzz and ask:

Who is huffing and puffing for the Sulpicio Lines victims today?

Still impressed by all the crocodile prayers being muttered by so-called “prayerful” Filipinos in commemoration of this atrocity? Where are the prayers and where is the Media-backed “commemoration” of the victims of the negligence of Sulpicio Lines?

Rather than take our cue from proclamations by a handful of self-styled “opinion shapers” and the colourful song-and-dance blitzes of profit-oriented Media outlets, I recommend that we derive real insight and better perspective from what Yours Truly wrote back in 2009:

Sensational “news” should never be confused with important information. And if it is useful information we seek, it seems that no amount of the “press freedom” our society supposedly gained since 1986 helped us identify the relevant issues that determine what our calls to action should prioritise. In the same way that irresponsible property development and garbage disposal failed to make headline news — until Ondoy did it for us — warlords in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines’ hinterlands amassed their wealth and arms under the radar — until the Maguindanao Massacre turned it to today’s talk of the town. Like everything else in the Philippines, whether it be disastrous flooding, or armed-to-the-teeth warlords, the Philippine Media — that supposed bastion of enlightenment, truth, and (get this) “information”, simply fails to lead the way in helping the public focus on what is important.

In the same way that Andal Ampatuan Jr is an individual person who oversaw the death of 57 innocent people, we are also a people of one Nation that have overseen preventable deaths numbering in the tens of thousands if not the hundreds of thousands. What we choose to focus our attention on — and what is glaringly absent from our national “debate” — is a revealing indictment of our claim to be a civilised society. The fundamental issues that underlie recurring disasters and accidents as well as chronic election violence — safety, environment, infrastructure, and security — are by themselves newsworthy in truly civilised societies. A routine focus on these issues is the hallmark of a society that truly cares about its lot.

Taken in the above context, it becomes a bit trickier to convince ourselves that Andal Ampatuan Jr is a “monster” who is fundamentally different from the average Filipino schmoe now, doesn’t it?

So if we really want to “end impunity”, there are many ways to do it. Most of those ways have to do with how we conduct ourselves within the small sphere that we personally influence. Shedding crocodile tears over a massacre that happened in a town on an island many of us weren’t even aware existed before 2010 is not the way to move forward and certainly offers very little in the way of delivering real results as far as our so-called aspirations to “end impunity” in the Philippines are concerned.

It starts with little things. The Maguindanao massacre is big because it was perpetrated by big people. There are many instances of impunity that are small and not worthy of the attention of the eyeballs-starved “media practitioners” who are spearheading this “impunity awareness” day. Those small instances that are considered inconsequential by the media are the sort of stuff ordinary Filipinos perpetrate. If we cannot “end impunity” at the scales we have the power to exert influence over, what hope have we of ending it at the national scale?

We need to learn to think and evaluate rather than lazily lap up what the media say we should think if we are to truly end impunity in the Philippines.


Post Author: benign0

benign0 is the Webmaster of