In Year Four of the Ampatuan Massacre
IMPUNITY REIGNS AS KILLINGS CONTINUE
NINETEEN (19) journalists have been killed for their work in the Philippines since 2010 when Benigno Aquino III assumed the Presidency, even as delays hound the trial of the accused in the Ampatuan massacre. And in 2013 alone, at least 66 instances of threats, physical assaults, illegal arrests, libel suits and other forms of harassments have been recorded in the Philippines, including in the National Capital Region.
It has been four years since the massacre in Ampatuan claimed 58 lives, including those of 32 journalists and media workers. The trial of the accused masterminds are still hearing the bail petitions filed by 63 of the 108 accused who are in custody. This stage of the trial allows the presentation of evidence in chief. But the process has not raised public confidence in the prospect of justice for those who were killed and their surviving families. At least not during the remaining years of the Aquino administration.
These delays are procedural, sanctioned by the rules of court. The Department of Justice has assured the public and the families of the Massacre victims that there will be convictions by the end of President Aquino’s term in 2016. But widespread skepticism that this will happen is understandable, in view of the slow progress of the trial. Meanwhile, the prosecution has lost two witnesses who were killed in separate incidents and three family members who were also called to the witness stand have since died.
The loss of confidence also reflects the sad record of justice for killed journalists. Out of 137 killings since 1986, there have only been 11 convictions of the trigger men and their accomplices. No other mastermind has been arrested, apart from those accused in the Ampatuan trial. The two suspect masterminds in the 2005 killing of Marlene Esperat have eluded arrest, with their lawyers . This case has now been archived in regional trial court of Makati.
The killing of journalists, mostly occurring in the provinces, has also spilled into the National Capital Region. In 2011, Marlina Sumera of radio station DZME was killed in the Manila suburb of Malabon. On July 30 this year, Manila tabloid columnists Bonifacio Loreto Jr. and Richard Kho were killed in the NCR’s Quezon City. The killing of 19 journalists since it came to power has also raised the yearly average of those killed during the first three years of the Aquino administration to six, putting it ahead of the two killed per year during the Ramos administration’s six-year term, the three killed in the two and half years of the Estrada administration, and the two killed per year during the first three years of the Arroyo administration.
Press freedom advocates view with grave concern the leap in the number and forms of harassments and threats against journalists, an indication as well as a consequence of the continuing reign of impunity. Manila broadcaster Ces Drilon received death threats via cellphone over several days. In the rural communities, threats take various forms. Journalists have reported being followed by men on motorcycles, their homes being fired at and receiving live bullets as a form of warning. The reports of attacks include physical assault and journalists being banned from coverage of public events. One case documented a complaint from a broadcaster of having been arrested and detained for supposedly libelous reports, even before a libel complaint had been filed.
The killers of journalists, and those who resort to physical assaults, threats and others forms of harassment to silence them, are likely to have been emboldened by, among other factors, the message of impunity the slow progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial has been sending since the trial began in 2010. Also of possible relevance is the perception of President Aquino’s hostility toward the press, transmitted by the lack of support for Freedom of Information legislation and his frequent critical comments about the media.
The quick and credible resolution of the Ampatuan trial—and President Aquino’s expressing some faith in the value of a free press and media’s capacity, despite their shortcomings, to provide the information a democracy needs—could send the opposite message: that the killing of journalists will not go unpunished, which could have helped cut the number of killings as well in incidents of harassments against journalists on the job.
Some media associations and media advocacy groups have not been remiss in engaging the Aquino government in behalf of the need to end the culture of impunity, and have proposed a number of steps that could contribute to the quick and credible resolution of the trial. Almost immediately after President Aquino’s election in 2010, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ)* proposed the adoption of several steps that, among other results, could have strengthened the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP), reformed the rules of court towards accelerating the pace of criminal trials, enhanced the forensic skills of the Philippine National Police and the formation of a COMBINED government and NGO quick response team which would signal government resolve to act on the case, accelerate the pace of the investigation and disseminate information whenever a journalist is killed.
There has been an increase in the budget of the WPP, but the program has continued to exclude requests for help for families of witnesses. President Aquino’s administrative order to include public prosecutors in the preliminary investigation should help. But the participation of members of media and of advocate NGOs could make this a more credible mechanism and may also speed up the case of the investigation.
Every government is ultimately responsible for the safety and well being of its constituents. In Year Four of the Ampatuan Massacre, the anniversary of which is observed this Sunday, November 23, the Aquino administration must be held to account for failing to act boldly to create the circumstances and foster conditions that will counter impunity and promote rule of law that will be meaningful not only for lawyers but for ordinary Filipinos who bear its punishing absence.
The goals of his presidency, primarily the institutionalization of “Daang Matuwid” can only gain from these steps, with benefits that will redound to the protection not only of the press but those of ordinary Filipinos citizens in this democracy.
*FFFJ is a coalition founded in 2003 to address the killing of journalists, support the families of the slain, and end impunity. It is composed of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) which acts as its Secretariat, the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the Philippine Press Institute(PPI), and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).