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U.S. Journalist & Activist Brandon Lee Shot in Philippines After Being Called “Enemy of the State”

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American journalist and indigenous and environmental rights activist Brandon Lee remains in critical condition in the Philippines more than four weeks after being shot multiple times outside his home in the northern region of the country in early August. Lee was shot at least four times in the back and face on August 6 in what his family and advocates say was an attempt by the Philippines government to kill him. Brandon Lee is a Chinese American born and raised in San Francisco, but he has spent the last decade in the Philippines, where he has a wife and young daughter. He is a correspondent for the weekly newspaper Northern Dispatch and an activist with local peasant, indigenous rights and environmental organizations. Lee’s editor at Northern Dispatch told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he has been targeted for this work since 2015, facing relentless surveillance from President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. We speak with San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who led a fact-finding delegation to the Philippines last week to investigate the attack, and Filipina activist Raquel Redondiez, a friend of Brandon Lee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re spending the rest of the hour on press freedom and threats to journalists around the globe. In the Philippines, American journalist and indigenous and environmental rights activist Brandon Lee remains in critical condition more than four weeks after being shot multiple times outside his home in the northern Philippines in early August. Lee was shot at least four times in the back and face on August 6th in what his family and advocates say was an attempt by the Philippine government to kill him. Now they’re calling for the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines to protect Lee as he recovers in the hospital, fearing another attack. This is Brandon Lee’s mother, Louise Lee, speaking in late August.

LOUISE LEE: Before we left San Francisco, we heard that Brandon had six cardiac arrests. When we arrived in Baguio City, we heard that he had his eighth cardiac arrest. I can’t believe that my son has had eight cardiac arrests and has survived. And he’s still alert, and he smiles, and he puckers his lips to give me a kiss. And I’m just so happy. I’ll be so happy when he returns home to the United States. My family and I are very thankful for the care that he is receiving here at Baguio General Hospital, but we are very concerned for his safety. The assailant is still out there and could come back to finish the job. I’m hoping that the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. representatives will be able to help us with medically evacuating Brandon and bringing him back home to San Francisco and away from his perpetrators, people who are out there wanting to kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Brandon Lee is a Chinese American born and raised in San Francisco, but he’s spent the last decade in the Philippines, where he has a wife and young daughter. He’s correspondent for the weekly newspaper Northern Dispatch, where he reports on community issues and land use, including corporate and government control of ancestral lands for mining and dams. He’s also a paralegal for the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance and activist with the Ifugao Peasant Movement, a community group that’s currently protesting a hydropower project and increased militarization in Cordillera. Lee’s editor at Northern Dispatch told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he’s been targeted for this work since 2015, facing relentless surveillance from Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. The Guardian reports he had been labeled an enemy of the state on social media before the shooting.

For more, we go to San Francisco. We’re joined by two guests. Matt Haney is a San Francisco supervisor, who led a fact-finding delegation to the Philippines last week to investigate the attack on the American journalist and activist Brandon Lee. And Raquel Redondiez is a member of the San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and a friend of Brandon Lee, visited Brandon in the hospital with Supervisor Matt Haney last week. Supervisors in San Francisco are like city councilmembers.

Supervisor Matt Haney, you led this delegation. Why did you go from San Francisco to the Philippines, and what did you find?

SUPERVISOR MATT HANEY: Well, we went, first and foremost, to visit Brandon. You know, Brandon is a San Francisco resident. He grew up here. He went to public schools here. And we had been deeply concerned about his well-being. A couple weeks ago, before we went, I authored a resolution really condemning some of the things that are happening and the human rights abuses in the Philippines. And then, shortly thereafter, one of our own, Brandon, was shot in this attempted assassination. So we wanted to go out and visit him. We wanted to bring him gifts. We wanted to bring him our love and solidarity from San Francisco. And we wanted to learn of his condition and what we could do to support him.

We also wanted to learn about the broader human rights situation in the Philippines. I represent a district that has a very large Filipino community, in South of Market. And many of my residents, that I represent, are impacted. And we’re concerned. There’s a long history of people around the world really standing up for human rights and democracy in the Philippines. And so, I wanted to make sure that we did whatever we could to not just support Brandon, but to support the Filipino people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Matt Haney, when you had a chance to talk with him, talk about what you learned about the actual assassination attempt. This was in his home that he was attacked? Could you talk about that somewhat?

SUPERVISOR MATT HANEY: This was at his home. He has a young daughter who was there at the time. He was going out in his backyard to feed his dogs. And he was shot multiple times. He has three bullets that are still inside his body, one near his spine and one in his face.

He has no doubt that this was the Philippine Army that targeted him. We got to meet with his colleagues and his family and his friends while we were there. They told us that a number of them were also visited by the Army on the same day, but they weren’t home. He had experienced escalating threats to his life from the military in the lead-up to the assassination attempt.

So, this is in a context in which Brandon has been deeply involved in fighting for the rights of indigenous people in the Philippines, human rights, defending their natural resources, particularly against a proposed dam in the area where he works. And he and his colleagues and his friends feel very confidently that this was from elements connected to the Philippine government. The police have told the family that they believe that it was Brandon’s friends that actually did this, which is an absurd thing from what we saw and everyone we talked to.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn —

SUPERVISOR MATT HANEY: So, he’s still very much in — OK.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Brandon in his own words. I mean, this is over a year ago. In a video message released in July 2018 — of course, before the assassination attempt — he talked about the threats and harassment he and his colleagues were confronting.

BRANDON LEE: Hello. My name is Brandon Lee. I’m a volunteer at the Ifugao Peasant Movement, IPM. For us, we have been harassed, intimidated, threatened with death threats, vilified, red-tagged, under surveillance constantly since 2010. A lot of it has to do with us defending the land, life and resources of the indigenous peoples here in Ifugao.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Brandon Lee over a year ago, before he was shot. Raquel Redondiez, you went on this fact-finding mission with Supervisor Matt Haney and others. You were a close friend of Brandon Lee. If you can talk about what he put out right before the assassination attempt — he was already saying he was targeted — and who he was targeted by and for what?

RAQUEL REDONDIEZ: Yes. Even in the weeks leading up to the attempted assassination, he had emailed some of his friends in San Francisco and told us that he was being visited at his home, at his workplace by the military or paramilitary forces. And, you know, he was very concerned about this. They were even asking about his daughter. And so, this is something he — as Matt said, he’s been facing harassment, intimidation, even death threats, for several years now, for his work organizing amongst indigenous communities in the Cordilleras.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raquel, I’m wondering — this case has not received very much attention at the national level. I’m thinking, for instance, of the case of Otto Warmbier, another American student, in North Korea, who was jailed, and there was a whole campaign to get him released. And finally, when North Korea did release him, he ended up dying as a result of a coma there, and even President Trump got involved. Here, what’s been the reaction at the national level to the fact that this is an American who was killed in the Philippines?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, shot — I’m sorry — in the Philippines?

RAQUEL REDONDIEZ: Well, definitely, family and friends have been reaching out to our congressional representatives. His mom reached out immediately to the U.S. Embassy to seek support for protection for Brandon while he’s still at the hospital recovering. The family has been requesting a medical evacuation for Brandon at the soonest time. And sadly, we have not really gotten a proactive response. I think there’s definitely, you know, private concerns expressed to family members at meetings with congressional offices, but what — the U.S. Embassy response was actually to contact the Philippine National Police to provide protection at the hospital, which was not welcomed by Brandon’s family and colleagues, who do believe that the Philippine National Police has been part of the harassment and the intimidation that Brandon and his colleagues have been experiencing the last several years.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk more about that? Now, Shawn Crispin with the Committee to Protect Journalists said, quote, “Authorities should leave no stone unturned in identifying and apprehending the perpetrators behind the shooting of journalist Brandon Lee. Until President Rodrigo Duterte shows he is serious about protecting journalists, all the talk of investigations will come to nothing and violent attacks on the press will continue,” he said. If you can describe who you know is behind this attack, and also what happened to others that night that he was shot?

RAQUEL REDONDIEZ: You know, what we’ve learned in our trip throughout the Philippines is that this is not an isolated incident. In the case of Brandon, seven other of his colleagues were visited at their home or their offices that same evening. Fortunately for them, none of them were home, and it was only Brandon that was home at the time, and so the other colleagues did not suffer his fate. But throughout the Philippines, what we’ve heard is that where there are communities organizing and resisting the president’s “build, build, build and kill, kill, kill” development policy, the military is deployed against them to harass them, to intimidate them and even to forcibly evacuate them, communities from their ancestral domains.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Matt Haney, if you can talk about what’s happening in the Philippines overall, the broader context of the extrajudicial killings? I mean, Rodrigo Duterte, a close ally of the United States, President Trump has applauded him over and over, even as he, himself, Duterte, has boasted about personally killing people.

SUPERVISOR MATT HANEY: I mean, it’s an awful situation throughout the country. President Duterte has been pretty clear about what he intended to do, and he’s doing it. He said that if you are a do-nothing, if you are somebody who’s a rebel or a communist, someone who’s involved with drugs, that he will kill you. And shockingly, there have been tens of thousands of people who have been killed by the Philippine government, some under this banner of the “war on drugs,” which we found was simply a war on the poor. In many cases, people were killed simply because they were living in a certain place and at the wrong place in the wrong time.

We met with some of the folks from the “nightcrawlers,” which are photojournalists who go and take photos of these extrajudicial killings. And they told us that these are so common that now their editors are telling them that they can’t even cover them anymore, because they need a new angle, because these are happening so often that it’s not even news anymore. And this particular journalist told us that the only thing that has changed is where they’re dumping the bodies and how they’re lying about it.

And so, this is a policy of the Philippine government to target and assassinate people they view as their enemies. And often those are people who stand in the way, like Brandon, who is standing up for people and their land and their rights. But sometimes it’s just people who are poor, who they can then say this person was involved with drugs or whatever it is, and are being targeted for assassinations.

And it seems that the U.S. government not only is not speaking out on this, but continuing to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the Philippine military. And there hasn’t been attention to this by the Congress. You know, we’ve been calling for a hearing. We’ve been calling for our representatives here to speak out, not just on Brandon’s case, but on the broader human rights situation in the Philippines.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Raquel Redondiez, I wanted to ask you — there’s been a lot of emphasis on covering what’s happened with Duterte and the drug war, but not so much the government’s war against environmental activists. One report by Global Witness says that 30 people have been killed since Duterte became president — environmental activists, about 20% of all environmental activists killed across the world.

RAQUEL REDONDIEZ: Yeah, the reality is that the Philippines is still very rich in natural resources. And again, this is stories we’ve heard in the north, but also from indigenous communities in the south, in Mindanao, where it’s still under martial law. And what we have is, you know, whereas a lot of communities have already been devastated by logging corporations and agribusiness who are utilizing their fertile land, now many multinationals, mining corporations, are really looking to push them out of their ancestral domain, so that they can take the natural resources from the ground.

And so, you know, as a result, like Supervisor Matt Haney said, anyone who stands in their way is harassed, intimidated or outright massacred. We’ve heard this, representatives from indigenous communities throughout Mindanao. We’ve heard this from school communities, students and teachers, who are being forcibly evacuated from their schools because the government does not want them to learn how to read, how to write, how to stand up for their rights. And, you know, it’s not just environmentalists, but other human rights defenders and anyone who is organizing for their rights in the Philippines.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us. We will continue to follow the story of Brandon Lee, how he is and what’s happening to him. Raquel Redondiez, I want to thank you for being with us, member of the San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, friend of Brandon, visited him in the hospital along with San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who led a fact-finding mission to the Philippines last week.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about another American journalist and activist, Sowore Omoyele. He is a Nigerian American. He also ran for president of Nigeria. He has been arrested and jailed in Nigeria for a month. We’ll speak with his wife and a Columbia law professor about his situation. Stay with us.

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