A TALE OF TWO DEAD JOURNALISTS AND TWO REPRESSIVE REGIMES

by: CHERYL L. DAYTEC-YANGOT


"The pen," wrote the playwright/poet Edward Bulwer-Lytton, "is mightier than the sword."
No one grasps the full import of this statement more than a tyrant desperate to stay in power and afraid of the groundswell of dissension to state terrorism.

On 17 November 2008, two men were killed in different parts of the world. They had some things in common aside from their date of death: both were journalists, and their murders are being imputed to state security forces.

It was supposed to be an ordinary day for
Areteo Padrigao, hard-hitting commentator of the Radyo Natin and a writer for the Mindanao Monitor Today. He dropped off his children to school in Gingoog City, Misamis Oriental in southern Mindanao. Then two men on board a motorcycle shot him in front of the school gate. He sustained several gunshot wounds, enough to cause several deaths in one human being if that were possible.

At the time of his death, Konsam Rishikanta Singh, 22, was the junior sub-editor of the
Imphal Free Press (IFP) in Manipur, India. He failed to report at 5.00 p.m. on 17 November as he was wont to do, being in charge of night desk work. Instead, Mr. Pradeep Phanjaobam, IFP editor, received a phone call. It was an unsettling one because it was made to the confidential phone line, known only to the IFP staff. After asking if Rishikanta reported to duty, the caller announced that he was shot dead.

Police officers stopped reporters of the newspaper Huiyen Lanpao when they rushed to the scene. According to human rights lawyer Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of the Manipur-based
Human Rights Alert, it is inconceivable for a person to perpetrate the murder and escape the attention of law enforcers. All the points of ingress and egress are heavily guarded by state security personnel. It is easy to do the math here.

Padrigao's murder is reminiscent of the 2005
ambush of activists Chandu and Alyce Claver in Kalinga, Philippines that claimed the life of Alyce and left Chandu seriously wounded. The activists were to deliver their child to school. Parenthood, among many others, is also a casualty of state terrorism.

Rishikanta's murder, too, draws a parallelism with the Claver case. In the latter, the perpetrators were not supposed to escape scot-free because all possible exits were guarded by law enforcers. Up to this time, however, none has been indicted for the dastardly crime. Rishikanta's case might suffer the same fate. Sadly, state terrorism opens doors for criminals and closes them for victims.

The two journalists' deaths happened under similar atmospheres albeit in different worlds. These two worlds are dominated by governments that have something in common: they detest truth. Truth, after all, sets people free- free from the shackles of oppression, free from the bondage of tyranny. They have allowed and are in fact nurturing a culture of impunity in human rights violations.

The Philippines holds the record of being the
most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Since 2001 when the unelected President started to sit in the most powerful swivel chair in the country, fifty-two journalists have been summarily executed. Padrigao is the fourth victim this year. This is not to mention the more than 800 activists and lawyers who were either summarily executed or forcibly disappeared, the latest victim being James Balao
. This is not also to mention the arbitrary arrest of and filing of trumped-up charges against hundreds of activists, human rights workers and other political dissidents, the latest victim being lawyer Remigio Saladero.

The reign of terror is being operationalized under Arroyo's
Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Plan: Freedom Watch), brandished as a counter-insurgency measure, aligned with US President George W. Bush's global war on terror. In truth however, Oplan Bantay Laya is waging an inhumane war which makes no distinction between insurgents and civilians, and underground and legal organizations. It has targeted activists, journalists and lawyers known to openly criticize and/ or struggle against a corrupt, repressive regime. In a public speech in 2002, Arroyo called activists and civil society groups opposed to the joint US-military exercises for their implications on sovereignty and human rights, communists, terrorist and "lovers" of Abu Sayyaf.

Giving more muscle to
Oplan Bantay Laya is the Human Security Act of 2007 which defines terrorism as an act that creates “widespread and extraordinary fear and panic” among people. The possibilities are broad and even legitimate acts may be construed as acts of terrorism. Journalists and activists are easily susceptible of being brought under the label terrorists. Certainly, the law is very dangerous and entrenches a climate of Martial Law.

Northeast India where Manipur is located is plagued by the
Armed Forces Special Powers Act. This is an upsetting piece of document. It vests security forces with unhampered power over an area declared disturbed, which in the mind of the national government means that the people in the area are harboring designs of seceding. And it is up to the national government to say whether an area is disturbed or not. The security forces have a wide berth of discretion to search, arrest and shoot anyone. Even a non-commissioned officer has license to kill if he/she deems that it is justified by the need to maintain public order. Virtually, this shocking law creates gods who have absolute power over life and death even from among humans with faulty judgments. Under it, the rape of women and torture have been legitimized as necessary in military operations, what with the impunity with which the crimes are committed!

The law applies only to the seven Northeast Indian states to arrest secessionist or revolutionary struggles. These territories are dominated by indigenous peoples and have a history of marginalization and neglect suffered in the hands of the national government.

It is therefore no wonder that Padrigao and Rishikanta, two vanguards of truth, were killed. Truth is the most dangerous weapon against the states they called home. As the New York-based
Committee for the Protection of Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1981 for the promotion of press freedom, asserts: "Murder is the ultimate form of censorship. One reporter is killed, and hundreds are sent a message that certain topics are too dangerous to be discussed."

Douglas MacArthur, speaking on the reality of war said, "Whoever thinks that the pen is mightier than the sword has never encountered automatic weapons." The killers of Padrigao and Rishikanta may believe this. But they fail to realize that the blood of martyrs nourishes the heroism of resistance.

In our struggle against tyranny, in our struggle against oppression, in our struggle against injustice, let us hoist high the torch of truth. In the strongest possible terms, we denounce the killings of Padrigao and Rishikanta and call on truth lovers all over the world to do the same!

(This article was also published by The Northern Dispatch.)
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