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The Fight for Press Freedom Is Local

National leaders who attack independent media attract most of the attention. But powerful authoritarian subnational elites, and a local political milieu that all but guarantees them impunity, pose the deadliest threat to journalists.

AMSTERDAM – A macabre political thriller recently unfolded in the Philippine province of Palawan, an island known mostly for its rich biodiversity and pristine beaches. On May 9, Joel T. Reyes, the alleged mastermind of the 2011 murder of well-known radio broadcaster Gerry Ortega, ran again for governor. Had Reyes won, the possibilities for Ortega’s family to obtain justice for the killing would have dwindled. Fortunately for them, he lost.

Although episodes like the Ortega murder might seem extreme, they are more common than many realize. Powerful authoritarian subnational elites such as Reyes, supported by a political milieu that often guarantees them impunity, pose the deadliest threat to journalists.

Ortega was fatally shot after he publicly accused Reyes, Palawan’s governor from 2002 to 2011, of embezzlement. All members of the hit squad were soon arrested and subsequently confessed to the killing. But, despite strong evidence that Reyes ordered the murder, prosecutors refrained from indicting him.