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The Killings of Journalists in the Philippines

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. Mr. Elmidulan says, "I received several death threats. As of now, I am facing a libel (case) filed by one of the board members (legislators) of this province."

At least 15 reporters have been killed in the past two years. Last year alone, eight were murdered; according to the media organization Committee to Protect Journalists, that number is second only to Iraq's.

Unlike in many countries, Filipinos working for the nation's seven hundred radio stations, half dozen national TV 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 in Paris 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" says Mr. Brossel. "So all these interests try to put pressure, including physically, on the journalists, and this is what happened in the Philippines."

Most of the journalists killed were covering government issues, which in the provinces are complicated by corruption. Local officials are often a law unto themselves, and few are willing to confront them because they control not only their own army of bodyguards, but also the police.

In desperation, some journalists have crossed the line from reporting to crusading. Radio host Edgar Damalerio filed corruption charges against local officials himself when no one else would. Mr. Damalerio's zeal cost him his life - he was gunned down in 2002. The main suspect is a police officer, allegedly backed by senior local officials.

Some journalists admit 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's not a reason to kill a journalist."

Reporters say journalists can become targets of their bosses' business or political rivals. Some reporters admit colleagues take pay-offs from interest groups to target rivals.

Inday Espina-Varona chairs the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines. She says such conflicts occur because journalists are poorly paid. According to Ms. Varona, "Around sixty percent of journalists in the country, especially in the provinces, do not receive regular salaries so they really are vulnerable to conflict-of-interest situations. And also they tend not to improve their professional standards precisely because they're probably too concerned on how to make ends meet."

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.

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 doesn't want to be a hero.