CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY - Filipino journalists expressed alarm Tuesday over spying activities of military and police agents on members of the media in the southern Philippines.
Journalists labeled the spying as "a graphic demonstration of the culture of impunity which has led to killings of a growing number of leftist militants and journalists in the Philippines."
The surveillance started February 14 in Salay town in Misamis Oriental province when armed soldiers identified as members of the Philippine Army's 8th Infantry Battalion took full-face photos of five journalists who were covering the burial of peasant leader Dalmacio Gandinao, the second militant leader slain in Misamis Oriental in Northern Mindanao.
Local newspapers have published the photos of soldiers involved in the surveillance of journalists, but the chief of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Jose Barbieto, denied his men were involved in the spying.
Manila Bulletin and Agence France Presse photographer Gerry Gorit said soldiers also took photos of him. This caused anxiety and sleepless nights, saying, he was violated.
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.
On Friday, the surveillance was repeated in a larger scale when at least ten military and police personnel in civilian attire and identified to be members of the 4th Infantry Division Civil Affairs Unit, the Philippine Army's Civil Relations Group and the Philippine National Police-Intelligence Division, 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.
"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 Orcullo.
"They have been taking pictures of us since we started the rally," said DXCO station manager and former Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas-Cagayan de Oro chapter president, Jonas Bustamante. "I am coming forward to tell them that we know what they are doing and that we will not be cowed."
However, the Army's Press Corps director Vic Cabanag assured the military did not issue any orders ordering soldiers to conduct surveillance of journalists.
But he was quick to say: "If photos were taken and surveillance is being conducted on these media men, it is because they (soldiers) 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," Barbieto added.
A police intelligence woman based in Cagayan de Oro City even went around brazenly taking photos of journalists who covered the burial.
The Army's 4th Civil Affairs Unit commander Maj. Samuel Sagun denied his group was involved in the surveillance. "4CMOU man yan, no longer 4ID. Headquarters Phil. Army na yan. Wala ako tao diyan. We're in a democratic country.You are in the AOR (area of responsibility) safest for journalists. Quote me," he said.
But soldiers who were confronted by journalists admitted taking orders from their superiors and said it was a routine surveillance.
Police Press Corps president Michael Angelo Bustamante said he was assured by Chief Supt. Teodorico Capuyan that protection would be afforded to Cagayan de Oro media.
Among those who attended the 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 members of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club.
Bishop 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," he 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 coincided with the publication of the findings of the Melo commission and an investigation by the United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial 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. (Contributed by Rene Banos/Kagay-an.com)