The Philippines is the most deadly place for journalists to work according to a new report issued on global Press Freedom Day. The group, Reporters Without Borders says 52 journalists have been killed in the Philippines over the past decade. VOA's Heda Bayron recently traveled to the southern Philippines where most of the attacks happened.
It is midday in Dipolog City, in the southern Philippines. In the sweltering heat, workers and students pile into tricycles to go home for lunch, and listen to radio host Elmer Elmidulan.
In his one-and-a-half-hour show, called Katin-awan, or Enlightenment, Mr. Elmidulan regularly criticizes local government officials.
And this has earned him the ire of his targets.
"I received several death threats,” he said. "As of now, I am facing a libel [case] filed by one of the board members [legislators] of this province."
Mr. Elmidulan is one of dozens of Filipino journalists facing harassment, and often violence, for doing their jobs.
At least 15 reporters have been killed in the past two years.
Unlike in many countries, Filipinos working for the nation's 700 radio stations, half dozen national television networks and numerous newspapers are free to pursue any story. They can interview anybody, including rebel militants, often to the consternation of government officials.
Vincent Brossel of the international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, says this kind of freedom can create enemies.
"When you have free press, you have critiques on the authorities, on the Mafia [organized crime] and religious groups. So all these interests try to put pressure, including physically, on the journalists, and this is what happened in the Philippines," he explained.
Most of the killings occur in the provinces, especially in the conflict-ridden south where criminal gangs and rebel groups operate. Life here is cheap, abject poverty makes it easy to find someone willing to kill for as little as $100.
Most of the journalists killed were covering government issues, which in the provinces are complicated by corruption.
Many victims have been radio commentators, who have been brave enough to challenge the system, so much so, that popular presenters such as Mr. Elmidulan have become the last resort for those desperate for help. Those seeking protection from abusive or corrupt public officials, or looking for help in filing legal cases against officials and those seeking justice for relatives in jail often call their local station to seek aid.
Mr. Elmidulan says he tries to follow-up some cases, but he feels frustrated when nothing gets done.
"I sometimes feel like a dog barking at the moon, waiting for it to fall. But if I stop, that means the powerful people had won," he added.
Some journalists admit a lack of professional ethics can contribute to attacks. Mr. Brossel of Reporters Without Borders says some Filipino journalists push the limits of media freedoms.
“The local radio is sometimes very critical, attacking very harshly, sometimes on the limit of what we call normal ethical journalism, but it is not a reason to kill a journalist," he explained.
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines and other media organizations have started nationwide training on safety and ethics, and have established a hotline for journalists who feel threatened.
Filipino journalists are fiercely protective of their freedom, having fought hard to regain it after suppression during the 1970s and 1980s under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Many say it is essential to bring to justice those who target journalists, because they are also killing the country's democracy.
President Gloria Arroyo admits that reporting on corruption has become a deadly occupation, and vows to punish those who kill reporters.
"There is nothing more corrosive to our democracy than the murder of journalists in pursuit of truth," she said. "I will not rest until those guys who have been caught and other assassins are brought to justice."
As he leaves his studio, Elmer Elmidulan says he is resigned to the possibility that a bullet could end his life at any second.
Death is a certainty, he says, whether today or tomorrow. In his work he believes he is exercising his rights and obligations as a citizen and a journalist. But he does not want to be a hero