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STATEMENT: Toward resolving the Ortega case | CMFR

STATEMENT: Toward Resolving the Ortega Case

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Statement of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists

The  deportation to the Philippines  and subsequent arrest of the alleged masterminds in the 2011 killing of broadcaster and environmental advocate Gerardo Ortega have awakened hopes that the suspected brains behind the killing of a journalist would be prosecuted. If government acts promptly, the recent arrest of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother, former Coron, Palawan Mayor Mario Reyes presents an opportunity for the Aquino administration to show political will to stop the killings of journalists.

The numbers blacken the record of the Aquino administration. Out of fifty journalists killed during PNoy’s term, 28 are established as work-related. That number belies the claim that the press enjoys freedom in this country as journalists and shows that in many places around the country, journalists are at peril when their reports offend those with the means to arrange for their silence.

Only fifteen cases have led to convictions in the killing of 149 journalists since 1986. The ongoing trial of the accused in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre include those who allegedly planned and ordered the killings. In the killing of Herson Hinolan in November 2004, a town mayor stands accused and on trial. But no other mastermind in the killing of a journalist has been arrested and tried. The gunman in the killing of Ortega was convicted in May 2013. The Reyes brothers who were identified by witnesses as masterminds during the trial had evaded arrest, until last week.

The arrest—and hopefully, the speedy and fair trial of the Reyeses for allegedly planning the killing of Ortega and hiring the killer and his accomplice would also be one of the few instances in which a former government official would be prosecuted. Because the Ortega killing was so outrageous, the prosecution of the Reyeses will send a clear signal to those who would silence journalists that neither the killers of journalists nor the brains behind them are as immune from prosecution as they think.

But this is wishful thinking. Statistics and the court trials so far do not inspire hope. Fifteen convictions out of 149 cases is only ten percent of the total. A number of former or active government civilian and military officials have escaped arrest and prosecution by hiring lawyers who have so mastered the technicalities of Philippine law that they expertly use them in their clients’ behalf rather than that of justice.  In one such case, the killing of Tacurong City journalist Marlene Esperat, the accused masterminds have managed to elude arrest despite the issuance of warrants of arrest against them.  And as journalist and media advocacy groups are well aware, legal maneuvering has also caused the unconscionable delays in the Ampatuan Massacre trial.  The most dangerous consequence of those delays is that they have made obtaining justice for the 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers killed in the Massacre so elusive that the very trial itself could result in encouraging more killings rather than deterring them.  Conditions of impunity include the kind of lawyering that only the rich can afford.

There are other practices that contribute to weaken the criminal justice system. The decision of the warden of the Puerto Princesa city jail, where the Reyeses are detained, to allow them to hold a press conference and their request for “hospital detention,” suggest how easily those with wealth and power can find ways around the rules that ordinary folk in the same situation are compelled to observe.

The Department of Interior and Local Government has correctly decided to relieve the warden and to initiate an investigation into why he allowed the press conference.  Hopefully, the Reyeses’ request for hospital detention will also be decided correctly and with similar dispatch.

The Ortega case could be an important turning point in the campaign to stop the killing of journalists and to combat the culture of impunity.  The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) therefore calls on the courts to immediately resolve all pending legal issues that could prevent the speedy trial of the Reyes brothers in a demonstration of the Philippine government’ commitment not only to resolving the cases involving the killing of journalists, but also for the sake of the justice it has sworn to provide every citizen.