A journalist was killed yesterday. For the second time in six years in my supposedly peaceful hometown of Palawan, a radio broadcaster in the prime of his life became another statistic in the list of Philippine journalistic killings. Gerry Ortega, a 47-year-old radio commentator, was instantly killed by a bullet to the head on the morning of January 24, 2011.
I remember the first time it happened. Well, not the first time, for the Philippines has a shameful culture of impunity regarding the journalistic killings that make the media one of the most dangerous arenas to work in. Assassination is a very real and ever present hazard for reporters and broadcasters who dare to oppose the rich and powerful elite. But the first time it became more than a news story to me was on May 22, 2006, when Fernando “Dong” Batul, also a radio commentator, was killed. Young (only 37 years old), intelligent, and charismatic, he stood firmly on the solid ground between cowardice and sensationalism. He was fearless, but he was also fair, and the people of Palawan loved him and knew he was on their side. His popularity, however, could not save him from a particularly brutal death: 12 bullet wounds were found in his body after gunmen ambushed him on his way to work. Four weeks before that, 2 grenades were lobbed at his home, a final warning after numerous death threats had failed to stop him from exposing the political corruption in the province. When even that was unheeded, the people of Palawan, me included, turned on our radios on the morning of May 22 to hear news of his assassination.
I do not know as much about Ka Gerry Ortega. I have been away from Palawan for years, and the first time I heard the news was this morning, on Twitter. With a heavy heart, I texted my dad, asking for details. What happened? Who could have done this? Was the gunman caught? It turns out the police were able to apprehend the shooter as he tried to escape, a man from Taguig, Manila, who is now declaring that robbery was his motive. I may not have all the details, but I doubt it. A thief does not shoot his intended victim directly in the head, in a public place at ten o’clock in the morning. Ka Gerry had many enemies, and one of them wanted him dead.
I do not know much about Ka Gerry Ortega, yet I speak out. I speak out because silence is what the oppressor wants, because silence is surrender, because silence is a desecration of every drop of blood that was spilled to give us a voice. Silence is apathy, and apathy gives permission for evil to prosper. I speak out to say that this cannot be condoned, this cannot be accepted, this cannot be forgotten. We as a people cannot call ourselves courageous when we allow the bravest of us to be cut down with impunity.
And I grieve. Knowing so little about the man, being so far away from home, still I grieve. I claim the right to mourn because I share the same love that Dong Batul and Ka Gerry died for, the love that Palaweño musician Pat Marquez sings of in his farewell songs for each of them. I mourn because I love Palawan, too, in all its incredible and fragile beauty and its peace-loving people who have somehow escaped cynicism against all odds. And with a fierce, deep pride I love my country, though that love is mingled with an inescapable sadness because I know that we can be so much more. We can be so much more, but we’re not. Yet. Because in grief there is also hope that no amount of spilt blood can quench.
Rest in peace, Dong Batul, Gerry Ortega, and the 140 0ther Filipino journalists killed since 1986. You are not just statistics, and you will not be forgotten. We will speak out, we will grieve, and we will remember. And we will hope. Most of all, we will hope.
Tribute songs by Pat Marquez:
Di Mapipigil (for Dong Batul)
Ka Gerry (for Gerry Ortega)