On Monday night, a Philippine news radio host who was a prominent critic of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was shot dead in his car during an ambush near his home. According to The Associated Press, Percival Mabasa, 63, was driving his vehicle on Monday night when two men on a motorcycle approached and shot him twice in the head in Las Pinas City, a suburb of Metro Manila. Police said that the attackers escaped and an investigation is underway to identify and locate them.
Known popularly as Percy Lapid, Mabasa’s “Lapid Fire” show featured frequent criticism of both Marcos and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, whose term ended in June. In recent broadcasts, he had criticized the practice of “red-tagging” – the imputing of communist links to government critics in order to delegitimize them or incite attacks against them – and the historical revisionism that has cast the repressive administration of Marcos’ father, President Ferdinand E. Marcos, as a golden age of prosperity and stability.
In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines condemned the killing, which it said was evidence that journalism remains one of the country’s most dangerous professions. “That the incident took place in Metro Manila indicates how brazen the perpetrators were and how authorities have failed to protect journalists as well as ordinary citizens from harm,” read the statement.
Mabasa is the second journalist to be killed since Marcos’ inauguration in late June, after he radio broadcaster Rey Blanco was stabbed to death in Mabinay, Negros Oriental province, last month. It also reinforces the Philippines’ melancholy reputation as the most dangerous nation in Southeast Asia in which to be a journalist.
An estimated 195 journalists have been killed since Marcos Sr. was toppled by popular protests in 1986, and the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) rated the Philippines at 147th out of 180 countries in its latest Press Freedom Index. As RSF noted, “The Philippines is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists – as seen most shockingly when 32 reporters were massacred in the southern province of Maguindanao in 2009 – and impunity for these crimes is almost total.”
Importantly, even though Marcos and Duterte have expressed an open contempt for the press – Marcos had virtually no interactions with the media during this year’s election campaign – this is an issue that is larger than the proclivities of particular leaders. For instance, according to this explainer by Rappler, more journalists were killed during the liberal administration of Benigno Aquino III (32) than under Duterte (23).
The bloodiest administration was that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), during which an astounding 103 journalists lost their lives. Outside of that, the toll has remained relatively consistent: 17 journalists were killed during the 1986-1992 tenure of Cory Aquino and 15 under Fidel Ramos during 1992-1998. Just five lost their lives under Joseph Estrada, though he only served for three years before being ousted in 2001.
This suggests that the violence against journalists is a result of structural factors: particularly, the lopsided concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of regionally-based families, who enjoy virtual impunity within their own regions and act ruthlessly to defend their prerogatives.
All of this a reminder that the pat division of the world into democratic and authoritarian states – a favored way of framing competition with China within the American foreign policy establishment – obscures as much as it illuminates. While the Philippines can claim to be one of Southeast Asia’s more vibrant democracies, this should be balanced against the fact that it remains a nation where it is possible for the wealthy and politically connected to order the murder of a journalist – and usually to get away with it.