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Killings, Political Intimidation of Journalists Trouble Philippines

The Philippines, long known for having the freest and boldest press in Asia, has become one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists, trailing only Iraq in the number of reporters killed. The head of the Philippines' National Union of Journalists was in Hong Kong to talk about an environment where journalists are targets for assassination and political intimidation. Claudia Blume reports.

Outspoken radio journalist Fernando Batul, based in the Philippine province of Palawan, was killed by gunmen on a motorbike on his way to work in May. Prior to the attack, Batul had exposed graft and corruption in the local government. After his death, fellow journalist Jofelle Tesorio, Palawan correspondent for the Philippines Daily Inquirer newspaper, wrote articles linking Batul's murder to local authorities.

Speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong on Monday, Tesorio said she soon got word that she was on a hit list too, and she fled to the capital Manila.

"That veiled threat is for me - it's time to go out of Palawan because I don't want to end up like my colleague," she said.

Tesorio has reason to fear for her life. The National Union of Journalists says 84 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. More than half of those murders have occurred in the past five years, during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Most of the killings take place in the provinces. They usually occur after journalists write critical reports about local politicians, the police or the military. Rowena Carranza-Paraan, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists says silencing those critics with the help of hired assassins is both easy and cheap.

Journalists say that the police do little to investigate the murders and have secured only four convictions so far.

The National Union of Journalists says the government is increasingly trying to silence critical reporters. Carranza-Paraan says one example is a proposed anti-terrorism bill that is pending in the Senate.

"Our problem with the bill is that the definition of terrorism is so broad that if you are a journalist simply interviewing or getting the other side of the story you would already be charged," Carranza-Paraan said. " If passed, a journalist interviewing an opposition leader or a militant leader could already be charged with inciting terrorism."

Carranza-Paraan says libel suits are another way of trying to intimidate journalists.

Jose Miguel Arroyo, husband of the Philippine president, has filed libel suits against 43 media professionals this year, saying they falsely accused him of corruption.

Although President Arroyo came to office promising transparency and democracy, journalists' groups now fear her presidency is rolling back some of the key freedoms that followed the overthrow of martial law in 1986.