A Prison Without Walls

Cambodia has always been one country that I’ve been fascinated in. Rich in history and culture, Cambodia shows the two sides of mankind’s capacity for greatness – our greatness to imagine, to build, and to create …and on the flip side, our greatness to destroy. I took the last few days to explore this country of contrasts—making the pilgrimage to the wonders of Angkor to marvel at the truly magnificent ruins that is a testimony to man’s brilliance, but also visiting the horrors of the Killing Fields to bear witness to man’s cruelty. It was a bit of a rollercoaster as I went through the heights and the depths of the Khmer civilization.

Let me start with the oft overlooked atrocities of the Khmer Rouge…not exactly a huge tourist draw given the weight of the subject, but still an imperative visit for anyone traveling to Cambodia.

A quick background for those of you who are not familiar with Cambodia’s modern history…the Khmer Rouge (led by Pol Pot) ruled over the country from 1975-1979 implementing one of the most radical, and not to mention cruel, restructurings of a society ever attempted. Influenced by the communist ideology, the Khmer Rouge’s goal was to eliminate all remnants of the past – even declaring 1975 as “Year Zero” – and to create a peasant-dominated agrarian society. In reality, Cambodia was turned into a prison without walls as the Khmer people faced an onslaught of forced labor, starvation, and of course, political executions. Some 1.7 million people lost their lives (that’s 21% of the country’s population) during the time of Pol Pot…an outright genocide that continues to permeate the lives of many Cambodians today.

Last week we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was known as Security Prison 21 or S-21. It was once a detention center set up by Pol Pot at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime. Over 20, 000 people were held there – most of which were political prisoners, monks, nuns, lawyers, doctors, and other members of the Khmer intelligentsia. I can’t even tell you how harrowing of an experience that was…there it stood, right in the middle of an ordinary street just barricaded by concrete walls around which regular Khmers would go about their day. As our tuk tuk driver pulled up to the entrance, we were surprised to know we had already arrived at our destination. From the outside, you could never imagine the atrocities that once took place within those walls.

But the moment you step foot inside, it’s as if you’re transported to the past. The actual building itself still looks very much as I imagine it did before. The rooms worn down, holes in the walls, the makeshift cells still largely in tact…perhaps it was just my imagination, but I could swear there were still blood stains on the ceiling of one room…it was all just too real and never before have I gotten so many shivers, not even when I visited Auschwitz two years ago.

What is most disturbing about S21 is the fact that it was once a high school. Each room was, in fact, a classroom…and the chalkboards still hang next to the many brick cells that once held innocent prisoners. To think that what was once supposed to be an institution of progress was turned into this menacing symbol—no, reality—of evil and barbarism. That, I think, is what stunned me the most. 

But the day didn't end there. We then proceeded to go to Cheoung Ek, what is more widely known as the Killings Fields...a mass grave of victims bludgeoned to death with a hammer or some other heavy tool...bullets were too expensive to use and these people were obviously not worth the cost. It's a deceptively peaceful place with a large green field and even a small pond making for a perfect place for quiet reflection. It was once an orchard actually and butterflies continue to roam free as chickens walk within the depressions in the fields…pits where the dead (or the dying) were buried. You wouldn't think anything of it really and it would be easy to forget where you are, but if you look closely enough, you'll see fragments of the brutal past. And when I say fragments, I mean real, physical fragments: teeth, bones, and scraps of clothing lie on the ground untouched. Every time it floods, these remnants continue to resurface. It's as if the victims can not rest.

It was a harrowing experience to say the least, but a necessary walk into man’s heart of darkness…

International Day to End Impunity

The first ever International Day to End Impunity was observed in the Philippines with particular fervour as it also marked the second anniversary of the most brutal attack on the press and on democracy. The Ampatuan town massacre of 2009 saw some 58 civilians murdered, 32 of which were journalists. Human rights advocates, students, lawyers, and the media marched towards Malacañang Palace to demand justice for the many slain journalists who were killed in the line of duty and whose murderers and masterminds continue to go unpunished.

The following photos are just a glimpse of November 23rd...

Ending the Cancer of Impunity

November 23rd marks the International Day to End Impunity, a call to demand justice for the many journalists around the world who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression and whose perpetrators are exempted from punishment and penalty. I've been working with a media monitoring NGO called the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), an organization that has been actively involved in organizing events and raising awareness of the growing culture of impunity within the Philippines. 

To give you some background, let me tell you that the media have been a cornerstone in the nation’s struggle for independence, democratization and justice. And until recently, the Philippines has been heralded as having the freest press in Asia, with a rich history of a thriving and rambunctious press system that can be traced back to its revolutionary movement against the Spaniards. At the end of the 19th century, La Solidaridad, a newspaper published in Spain by leading Filipino intellectuals, served as an instrument of expression for the revolutionary sentiment against the Spanish and the Filipino cause for change and independence. Similar to its role in inciting revolutionary sentiments at the end of the 19th century, the Philippine press was also crucial in the People Power Revolution of 1986 that ultimately toppled the Marcos regime. And after being silenced for years under a dictatorial government, the media flourished...

The right to the freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press has always been enshrined in the Philippine constitution. Despite this, however, the press, at least in its current state, is an incredibly weak institution that faces intractable challenges, none more so than the culture of impunity. Unpunished violence against the media has soared since the years after the Marcos regime fell, especially during the years of the Arroyo administration. As journalist Lin Neumann once wrote for the Committee to Protect Journalists, the "damage done by Marcos' martial law remains. By dismantling the structure of the press built up over previous decades, Marcos weakened the professionalism and ultimately politicized the media to a staggering degree", creating a climate of fear that continues to be a powerful force in the Philippine press. 

Defined by CMFR's Deputy Director Luis Teodoro as “the way some societies ignore, permit or even encourage various forms of violence against journalists as well as their harassment and intimidation, and allow these to go unpunished”, the culture of impunity has truly dominated the Philippines in recent years. From being praised as having the freest press in Asia, the Philippines’ reputation has suffered, becoming the second most dangerous place in the world for media workers, only behind Iraq. Since 1986, 123 journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty and only 10 convictions have been carried out for these killings.

This near zero arrest, trial, and conviction of killers is fueling the culture of impunity that is stifling the freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press in the Philippines. It is no surprise then that its position on RSF's Press Freedom Index of 2010 dropped precipitously to 156th place out of the 178 countries included in the ranking, officially joining the ranks of infamously repressive states such as China, Iran, Burma, and North Korea.  This culture of impunity not only threatens the lives of its media workers but also impinges on every Filipino’s right to freedom of expression.

The change in administration to Noynoy Aquino, the son of revolutionary icons Benigno and Corazon Aquino, reignited hope...but after more than a year in office, the killings continue. Six journalists have been killed under his administration and the lack of strong action and major shift in policy to end impunity leaves the country wanting in justice...

The road is long and no single government agency or NGO can act alone to definitely end what has become, if I may again borrow from our hero Rizal, a cancer of this society. But let this first Day to End Impunity be the beginning of a real and effective treatment against this deadly disease...

To learn more about the Day to End Impunity, visit www.daytoendimpunity.org.
To learn more about impunity in the Filipino context, visit www.cmfr-phil.org.

Reporting on Rights Radio

This week, I checked in with my pals at Journalists for Human Rights on Right Radio to report on the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility's (CMFR) work in the lead up to November 23rd, the International Day to End Impunity. Have a listen below to learn more about what's going on here in the Philippines...

Also, on this week's Rights Report goes global to look at censorship in countries around the world. The folks at jhr speak to RSF, Reporters Without Borders, about their Censorship Paradise campaign targeting holiday countries where media is heavily censored. The show goes to Cuba to look at the work of censored blogger Yoanni Sanchez, then off to Mexico, where reporters are continually being killed. Finally, the Rights Report lands in Vietnam and the Philippines (that's me!), where the media is fighting acts of impunity.