Do radio commentators deserve to die?

WHEN radio blocktimer Rey Cortes was fatally shot by an unidentified suspect last July 22, I wasn’t surprised. Cortes, as I knew him, was a reckless, irresponsible hard-hitting commentator who had been playing with fire for years. He survived an attack 18 years ago, the suspect being someone Cortes allegedly had tried to blackmail. Did it make him change his ways and become more careful in his commentaries? No! In 2006, he was arrested over another extortion complaint, and in 2017 he was sued for libel. And there probably are other cases in between attesting to Cortes’ unconventional style.

Radio blocktimers, unfortunately, have a reputation for engaging in character assassination or below-the-belt attacks on the subjects of their commentary, being paid to do so or asking money from their “victims” in exchange for a ceasefire. Media practitioners killed in the Philippines are mostly blocktimers.

But then again, such blocktimers also tackle real issues. Rey Cortes discussed legitimate issues on “Engkwentro,” his daily program on Radyo Pilipino Cebu, criticizing local politicians over questionable projects, speaking up for victims of injustice and exposing illegal activities. Cortes had his followers who felt they learned something from him or they simply enjoyed his colorful style.

The brutal killing of the blocktimer drew condemnation from the Cebu chapter of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the Cebu Citizens-Press Council, the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines and the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS). The PTFoMS is chaired by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and cochaired by Secretary Martin Andanar of the Presidential Communications Operations Office with Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco in charge of the task force’s daily affairs. In the July 22 statement on the murder of Cortes, Egco “reminded broadcasters, specifically blocktimers, to be more vigilant as the election season nears” and that “historically, there is a spike in election-related violence committed against blocktimers as the election heats up, especially at the local level.”

That is true. The election season is the time for freelance radio commentators to get to work and earn their living or, if they have existing programs, increase their earnings by accepting additional sponsors or get better deals from their existing ones. The sponsoring politicians or candidates are praised, rivals lambasted and ridiculed. While oftentimes bringing the risk of libel suits, complaints over breach of KBP standards and even violent attacks by persons who feel offended by these commentaries, political blocktime programs provide much-needed revenue to local radio stations whose income from regular advertising usually isn’t enough to pay the bills.

Being a provincial media practitioner is neither glamorous nor well-paying. Keeping a local radio station going is tough, every day. Which isn’t an excuse for tolerating below-the-belt, libelous commentary in paid programs, just like such commentary doesn’t justify murder.

Did Rey Cortes bring it upon himself? The Cebu Citizens-Press Council has asked two things from authorities – the creation of a special investigation task group and for a “diligent crime investigation.” The task group was created and an investigation is ongoing. Is it diligent? We hope. Will it bring perpetrators – triggerman, accomplices and most importantly, the mastermind – to justice? We pray.

Possible motive? While politics could be behind the murder, it would be out of character for Cebu’s politicians to be responsible for such an evil deed. Cebu’s politicians aren’t angels but they are not known to murder journalists. They may sue them, file complaints, bar them from government premises, curse them, shame them during press conferences and the like but hire an assassin to murder them? Very unlikely. Though it cannot also be denied that more is at stake in the coming elections: the private sector is severely battered making public office one of the few profitable “businesses.” Also, with the higher share of internal revenue allotment going to the local government units due to the Mandanas ruling, public office, considering the power that comes with it, is bound to become even more lucrative.

While the murder of Rey Cortes has caught the attention of no less than the PTFoMS and Philippine National Police Chief Director General Guillermo Eleazar, the long list of unsolved killings by unidentified assassins and the unsolved killings of broadcasters in Dumaguete City (like Cebu part of Central Visayas) in recent years doesn’t inspire optimism. The May 5, 2020 murder of Dumaguete City broadcaster Cornelio Pepino was investigated by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and the National Bureau of Investigation. The alleged triggerman was murdered a week later but neither motive nor mastermind have been identified. The murders of Edmund Sistoso (April 30, 2018) and Dindo Generoso (Nov. 7, 2019) remain unsolved.

Rey Cortes may not have been the epitome of responsible journalism but it doesn’t justify murdering him. Murder is murder. And murder has no place in a civilized society.