CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (Mike Baños / Feb. 27) - Military and police personnel conducted surveillance of media practitioners in two activities last week, in what many media personalities labeled as a graphic demonstration of the "culture of impunity" which has led to killings of a growing number of leftist militants and journalists.
The surveillance started last February 14 in Salay, Misamis Oriental when armed soldiers using cellphone cameras identified as members of the Philippine Army's 8th Infantry Battalion took full-face photos of five media practitioners who were covering the burial of peasant leader Dalmacio Gandinao, the second militant leader slain in Misamis Oriental and Region 10.
Despite the publication of photographs showing soldiers engaged in the activity, Fourth Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Jose Barbieto denied his men were involved in the surveillance.
Manila Bulletin and Agence France Presse stringer Gerry Gorit admitted the knowledge that the military took his photograph has caused him anxiety and sleepless nights.
The burial of the slain peasant leader was also attended by Bayan Muna party-list representative Satur Ocampo and other regional and local leaders of Karapatan, Bayan Muna, Anakpawis and the Misamis Oriental Farmers Association.
Last Friday, February 23, the surveillance was repeated in a larger scale when at least ten military and police personnel in civilian attire identified to be members of the 4th Infantry Division Civil Affairs Unit, the Philippine Army's Civil Relations Group and the Philippine National Police R2 trailed the indignation rally against the "Culture of Impunity" led by the Cagayan de Oro Press Club all the way from its starting point at the Misamis Oriental Capitol Gardens to the Cagayan de Oro City Amphitheatre in Plaza Divisoria where the rally was held.
"Again, we want to know what these shots are for. The next time it might just be another shot but of a deadlier kind," said COPC president Hugo "Jerry" Orcullo. "They have been taking pictures of us since we started the rally," DXCO Station Manager and former Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas-Cagayan de Oro chapter president Jonas Bustamante announced as he started his talk. "I am coming forward to tell them that we know what they are doing and that we will not be cowed."
However, Diamond Press Corps president and press club director Vic Cabanag played back a taped interview of Barbieto during the rally in which the military officially assured he has not issued any orders ordering his men to conduct surveillance of mediamen. But he also issued a caveat, saying "If photos were taken and surveillance is being conducted on these mediamen, it is because they too are taking photos and doing surveillance works."
"As far as we are concerned, we guarantee the safety of all media within the 4th Infantry Division's area of responsibility,"Mr. Barbieto added.
Rally participants noted the identified military and police personnel taking down notes and surreptiously taking photographs of the rally.
A lady personnel in civilian clothes later identified to be a member of the PNP R2 (Intelligence) group based at the Police Regional Office-Region 10 at Camp Alagar even went around brazenly taking full-face photos of the media present. When asked what she was doing, she replied she was only testing her camera but couldn't answer when asked why she couldn't test it someplace else since there were other subjects in the area but nevertheless continued taking photos of those who joined the rally.
Asked about the presence of his men conducting surveillance on the indignation rally, 4th Civil Affairs Unit commander Maj. Samuel Sagun texted back, "4CMOU man yan, no longer 4ID. Headquarters Phil. Army na yan. Wala ako tao diyan."
"We're in a democratic country," Mr. Sagun's texted reply continued. "You are in the AOR (area of responsibility) safest for journalists. Quote me."
However, media present talked to personnel of Mr. Sagun's unit who were personally known to them who admitted they were only conducting routine surveillance according to orders previously issued to them by their superiors.
Military and police officials have often cited how Region 10 remains to be the only region in the country where a journalist has yet to be killed during the incumbency of Pres. Arroyo.
PNP-10 Press Corps President Michael Angelo Bustamante said he also received similar assurances from PNP PRO-10 Regional Director Chief Supt. Teodorico Capuyan that protection would be afforded to Cagayan de Oro media.
Among the key figures who attended Friday's rally were Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippine (CBCP) vice chairman and Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma and Monsignor Elmer Abacahin, Vatican Press Corps Representative and also a member of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club.
Archbishop Ledesma said the Church is one with the media in calling on government to stop the killings against media practitioners and give justice to the relatives of the victims.
"We join the media in condemning these killings and calling on government to resolve them in order not to (allow this) climate of suppression of freedom of expression," Bishop Ledesma said.
The rally was held on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the murder of Muhammad Yusop, the first journalist killed during the incumbency of Pres. Gloria Arroyo.
The anniversary has coincided with the publication of the findings of the Melo commission and an investigation by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston.
Former COPC President Uriel Quilinguing noted it also marked the declaration of Proclamation 1017 last year that marked the start of a crackdown on media outlets.