Appeal to UNESCO regarding the classification of the Ampatuan massacre case as “resolved”

Tombstones mark the site of the Ampatuan Massacre in Maguindanao where 58 persons were killed including 32 journalists . | CMFR File Photo

Alarmed by the supposed UNESCO classification of the Ampatuan massacre case as “resolved” from news reports that were based on a press release of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFOMS), a broad group of organizations and individuals signed on to this letter that was sent to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay through the DG Secretariat last September 12, 2020.

The letter remains unacknowledged to this day.

Director Genera
7 Fontenoy Place
Paris, France

12 September 2020

Re: Classification of Ampatuan massacre case

Dear Madam:

Greetings from the Philippines! We hope this letter finds you safe and well during such difficult times.

We – the families of the journalists killed in the Ampatuan massacre, as well as media groups, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens who have stood with them in their continuing search for justice – wish to express our distress and disappointment as news reports, including from government media, have called attention to UNESCO’s classification of the entire case as “resolved” and citing this as an accomplishment of the Duterte administration and its efforts to protect journalists.  

We refer you to the following articles, including one from the state-run Philippine News Agency, which marks it as a press release from the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFOMS) in the Malacañang Palace:

These news reports quote from a letter that former Assistant Director General Moez Chackchouk apparently wrote to Ambassador Theresa Lazaro, Philippine Permanent Delegate to UNESCO and Philippine Ambassador to France, to wit: “I am pleased to confirm that we will classify these as resolved, both in the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists and in the 2020 Director-General Report on the Safety of Journalists.”

We acknowledge that the court decision on December 19, 2019, which convicted 28 of the accused of planning and carrying out that most gruesome crime – and 15 others as accessories – was a triumph of justice for the victims of the worst incident of electoral violence in Philippine history, and the deadliest single attack on journalists in the world.

Regrettably, that one court decision does not mean that the case is “resolved.” Far from it.

First, while there has been a verdict, the Ampatuan convictions can still be and, in fact, have been appealed. Brothers Zaldy Ampatuan and Andal Ampatuan, Jr. have filed their appeals before the Court of Appeals, while another brother, Anwar Ampatuan, and his two sons, Anwar Ampatuan, Jr. and Anwar Sajid Ampatuan, have appealed before the trial court that convicted them.

Second, nearly 80 more suspects, 15 of them surnamed Ampatuan, remain at large more than a decade after the mass murder. All of them should be tried, but as of February 20, 2020, only four, two of them policemen, have been arrested and are on trial. Another principal accused, Sajid Islam Ampatuan, brother of Zaldy, Andal Jr. and Anwar Ampatuan, was acquitted even if he was present at the meeting when the massacre was planned. He is now an incumbent mayor of a town in Maguindanao province, where the massacre happened.

This is the reason why the families of the 32 journalists who perished, as well as the witnesses who testified for the prosecution, continue to fear for their safety. As many are not enrolled in the Department of Justice’s witness protection program, and continue to live in their known communities, they remain exposed to possible retaliation and attacks.

Third, the victims’ families, and we who have been with them throughout their difficult struggle, still cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that, while the court, more than three years into the trial, allowed the inclusion of photojournalist Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay among the victims –bringing the total count to 58 even if his body was never found – only issued convictions for 57 counts of murder, dashing the hopes of justice for Momay’s family.

It is also important to note that, in January 2015, criminal charges were filed before the Maguindanao provincial prosecutor against 49 other persons, including local government officials and police officers, for their alleged participation in the planning, execution, and subsequent cover-up of the Ampatuan massacre. Although these charges have yet to be resolved by the prosecutor, we understand that the lawyers of the victims’ families intend to pursue these cases.

It is unfortunate that UNESCO’s conclusion appears to have relied solely upon government claims, without consideration for the other facts and contexts surrounding the case — a glaring oversight, considering that many of us have good relations and work closely with your agency’s Jakarta, Bangkok, and other offices.

We are most distressed that Mr. Chackchouk’s letter is now being used by the Duterte administration to paint a misleading picture of the state of press freedom in the country. For example, Undersecretary Joel Egco, the executive director of PTFOMS, has said: “With UNESCO acknowledging the finality of the Ampatuan Massacre, we can proudly proclaim to the world that any violence against our media workers will never go unpunished, and that the so-called ‘culture of impunity’ against journalists in the country has finally come to an end.”

Lest it be forgotten, of the 188 journalists killed in the Philippines since 1986, 16 have lost their lives under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has not bothered to hide his disdain for free and independent media. Duterte led the charge to shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network. His government continues to hound independent online news outfit Rappler and its founder and CEO Maria Ressa with dubious legal cases. His national security advisers have incessantly tagged news outfits and journalists who have criticized the government as allies or pawns of “terrorists.” This is a particular source of concern, in view of the recent enactment of the draconian Anti-Terrorism Law. We hope that UNESCO will not play into the attempts to “sanitize” the reputation of the Duterte government among international agencies in view of the pending scrutiny of the President by the International Criminal Court.

UNESCO is known for looking at complex issues with a wide lens. In this instance, the wide lens fails to reflect the legal processes and ignores the pertinent issues which delay justice in the system. We recommend reviewing this wide lens as it applies to the Ampatuan trial and the court decision in 2019 so as not to betray the hopes of the families of the victims who are still awaiting justice.

We, the undersigned, respectfully call upon your office to proactively exercise its mandate by doing due diligence and complete staff work on this matter to ensure that declarations about these cases reflect the reality on ground. In this way, UNESCO could arrive at a balanced and comprehensive assessment of press freedom and freedom of expression in general in the Philippines, beginning with thorough consultations with key stakeholders, and not only State officials.

We would be most grateful for your attention and consideration as this is a matter of utmost concern.

Many thanks. In the meantime, please be assured of our esteem and continuing support.

With best wishes,

Organizational Signatories
Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) – Ray Paolo J. Santiago, Executive Director               
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) – Melinda Quintos-De Jesus, Executive Director
Davao Today – Lucelle Bonzo, Executive Director  
Digital News Exchange – Julius D. Mariveles, Executive Editor
Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) – Liza Garcia, Executive Director
In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) – Niza Concepcion, Communications Officer
Journalism Studies Association of the Philippines (JSAP)               
Mindanao News Express – Michael Navarro, CEO / Executive Publisher
MindaNews – Carolyn O. Arguillas, Editor in Chief
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) – Nonoy Espina, Chairperson
Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) – Rosemarie Trajano, Secretary General 
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) – Floreen Simon, Officer-in-Charge
Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PHILRIGHTS), Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, MPH, DrPH 
Philippine Press Institute (PPI) – Ariel Sebellino, Executive Director
Philippines Communication Society             
University of the Philippines Department of Journalism                   
VERA Files – Ellen Tordesillas, Board of Trustees President

Individual Signatories
Abdul Manan – Chairman, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) Indonesia    
Albert C. Lee – Freelance Journalist              
Alisandra E. Abadia – Kabataan Para Sa Karapatan Negros Oriental           
Anne Krueger  – Paghimutad Negros 
Anthony (Anton) M. Juan, Jr., Ph.D – Full Professor / Theatre and Film Director & Playwright, University of Notre Dame    
Antonio G. M. La Viña – Professor of Constitutional Law, University of the Philippines College of Law 
Antonio J Montalvan II – Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer       
Asuncion Benitez-Rush                                 
Bambina Olivares                              
Bella Perez-Rubio –       
Benjamin de la Peña                          
Berlita Ante – Spokesperson, Kadamay Negros       
Bernardino P. Testa – Former President, Press Photographer of the Philippines      
Bryan Bosque – Chairperson, Anakbayan Panay      
Camille Diola  –
Carlos Conde – Human Rights Watch          
Carmela Fonbuena – Freelance Journalist; The Guardian     
Catalina Ricci Madarang – Interaksyon         
Che Sarigumba – Writer/Journalist                
Checcs O. Orbida – Vice President, PeacePond Farmers Association          
Chickoy Pura – Musician/Songwriter, The Jerks       
Chito Quijano – Philippine International Network for Advocacy and Solidarity (PINAS)  
Chris Sorio – Chairperson, BAYAN-Canada
Cindy Domingo – Chair, LELO/A Legacy of Equality Leadership and Organizing United States
Clarizza Singson – Secretary General, KARAPATAN Negros Island         
Clement C. Camposano – President, Philippine Studies Association; Faculty member, University of the Philippines Diliman
Crimson Labinghisa – Coordinator, Kabataan Partylist Panay          
Cristina Palabay – Secretary General, KARAPATAN         
Dana Batnag                          
Danilo Arao – Associate Editor,           
Danilo dela Fuente – Vice Chairperson, SELDA      
Danilo Fabella – Songwriter/Performer, Musikangbayan      
Danilo Tabura – Spokesperson, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas Negros
Diego Malacad – Secretary General, Undoc-Piston
Dinah Tapiah Roma
Dr. Vicente Rafael – Professor of History, University of Washington          
Dr. Rachel A.G. Reyes                                  
Edeliza Hernandez – Medical Action Group (MAG)
Edgar Cadagat – Journalist
Edna Aquino – Human rights advocate                     
Efigenio Christopher Toledo IV –         
Elizabeth Gonzales – Private citizen              
Elizabeth L. Enriquez – Board Member and Treasurer, Philippine Studies Association; Faculty Member, University of the Philipines Diliman
Elmer Forro – Secretary General, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Panay    
Emmanuel Amistad – Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)      
Emmanuelle Duterte, MD                             
Ereneo Longinos – Deputy Secretary General, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Negros      
Erlinda Cadapan – Chairperson, Desaparacidos        
Eunice Barbara C. Novio – Journalist / OFW            
Evangeline Hernandez – Chairperson, Hustisya       
Fe Mangahas                          
Felipe Gelle – Deputy Secretary General, September 21 Movement
Francis Allan L. Angelo – Daily Guardian    
Franco Luna –    
Gaea Katreena Cabico –
Gianna Montinola                              
Gino Lopez – Paghimutad Negros     
Grace Morales – JUSTICE NOW (the organization of families of the 32 slain journalists) 
Hannah Papasin – Managing Editor, Digital News Exchange           
Ian Nicolas Cigaral –     
Inday Espina-Varona – Journalist                  
Jaileen Jimeno – Journalist                 
Jaira Balboa –    
Jairo Bolledo – NUJP; Department of Journalism Polytechnic University of the Philippines          
James Relativo –
Jane Worthington – Director, International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific  
Janess Ann J. Ellao –    
Jeline Malasig – Interaksyon  
Jennie Arado – Editor, SunStar Davao          
Jerbert Briola – Human Rights Online Philippines    
Jervis Manahan – News Reporter, ABS-CBN News
Jesson Reyes – Managing Director, Migrants Resource Centre Canada       
Jet C. Orbida – President, PeacePond Farmers Association 
Joel Pablo Salud – Writer/Journalist               
John “Butch” Lozande – Secretary General, National Federation of Sugar Workers           
John Ian Alenciaga – Coordinator, Altermidya Panay          
Jojo Riñoza – Freelance Photojournalist                    
Jonathan Basanta García – Profesor de Español, Cencias Sociales y Teoría del Conocimiento       
Jonathan De Santos –    
Joseph Bernard Marzan – Daily Guardian     
Judy Taguiwalo – Former Secretary, Department of Social Welfare and Development       
Julianne Balora – Spokesperson, Kabataan Partylist Negros
Juluis A. Dagatan – Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Negros
Jyasmin M. Calub-Bautista – Assistant Professor, Department of Development Journalism, College of Development Communication, UP Los Baños          
Karl De Mesa – Freelance Journalist             
Kaye M. Casimero – Anakbayan Western Visayas State University
Kristine Daguno-Bersamina –   
Kristine Joy Patag –       
Kristofer Purnell –         
Kriztine R. Viray – Philippines Communication Society      
Lila Ramos Shahani – Former Secretary-General, Philippine National Commission for UNESCO
Lisa Ito – Secretary General, Concerned Artists of the Philippines   
Lisandro Claudio – Assistant Professor, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, UC Berkeley
Lorenzo Tañada III – Former Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives   
Lui Queano – Coordinator, Malaya Canada 
Luisa Morales – 
Ma. Arve B. Bañez – University Professor, University of the Philippines Visayas  
Ma. Diosa Labiste – Board Member, Philippine Studies Association; Faculty Member, University of the Philippines Diliman
Mae Paner – Artist / Cultural worker
Malcolm Guy – Documentary filmmaker; President, Productions Multi-Monde Inc.          
Manuel Mogato – Journalist
Marchel Espina – NUJP Bacolod      
Marden Jalandoon – Secretary General, Gabriela Negros     
Maria Jovita Zarate – Board Member and Secretary, Philippine Studies Association; Senior Lecturer, University of the Philippines Open University
Maria Karina Africa Bolasco – Book Publisher                     
Marianito Amacan – Spokesperson, Kilusang Mayo Uno Negros    
Marie Boti – Documentary filmmaker; President, Diffusion Multi-Monde Inc.       
Marizon B. Esquela – Private citizen             
Mary Ann M. Arnado – Secretary General, Mindanao Peoples Caucus       
Mate Espina – Columnist, The Visayan Daily Star   
Melanie Morrison – Project Manager, International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific 
Mia Magdalena Capuyan Fokno – Baguio Chronicle
Michael Jobert Navallo – Reporter, ABS-CBN News          
Mideo M Cruz – Artist                       
Milo Paz – Writer/Filmmaker             
Monet Pura – Band manager, The Jerks        
Monina Gulmatico – Spokesperson, Migrante Negros         
Nilda Lagman – Sevilla – Co-Chairperson, Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND)   
Noel C. Esquela – HR, Migrants, and Overseas Absentee Voting advocate             
Oscar V. Campomanes – Ateneo de Manila University        
Pastor Jec Borlado – Program Director, Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches           
Patricia Depra – Coordinator, Youth Act Now Against Tyranny Negros Island Region     
Patricia Lourdes Viray –
Paulynn Paredes Sicam – Freelance journalist; Editor, Women Writers in Media Now (WOMEN)
Pepito “Pete” Pico – Spokesperson, Movement Against Tyranny Negros   
Priscilla Goco – Partido Manggagawa Negros          
Ramon Guillermo – Professor, Center for International Studies (CIS) UP Diliman 
Ratna Ariyanti – South East Asia Coordinator, International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific          
Ratziel San Juan –         
Red Batario – Center for Community Journalism and Development
Remmon E. Barbaza, Ph.D. – Department of Philosophy, Ateneo de Manila University    
Renato M. Reyes, Jr. – Secretary General, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan 
Rev. Fr. Julian Jagudilla, OFM – Philippine International Network for Advocacy and Solidarity (PINAS)
Rev. Joy Tajonera – Director, Ugnayan Migrant Ministry    
Rev. Luis Daniel Alba Pantoja, BA, MA, ThM – Peacebuilding Missionary            
Reylan Vergara – Secretary General, Panay Alliance Karapatan      
Rhea Gamana  – Secretary-General, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Canada         
Rico Foz – Philippine International Network for Advocacy and Solidarity (PINAS)          
Rigie O. Malinao – Convenor, Kabataang Tagapagtanggol ng Karapatan (KATAPAT)     
RJ Ledesma – Chairperson, League of Filipino Students Bacolod   
Romana P. de los Reyes – Environmentalist             
Rommel F. Lopez –     
Ronald U. Mendoza, Ph.D. – Dean, Ateneo School of Government
Rosario Liquicia – Trustee/Editor, VERA Files        
Rosette Adel – Interaksyon    
Rowel C. Montes – Program Director, Sunshine Radio Tacloban     
Siegfred Deduro – Vice President for Visayas, MAKABAYAN Panay       
Sr. Aquila Sy – Presentation Sisters   
Susan Jaro – Promotion of Church People’s Response          
Susan Roxas – Private citizen            
Susan Severino Lara – Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas          
Taher Guiambangan Solaiman – Journalist                
Ted Aldwin Ong – Journalist             
Tess Bacalla – Project Lead, Asia Democracy Chronicles    
Tita Valderama – Journalist                           
Tomasito T. Talledo – Professor, University of the Philippines Visayas, Miag-ao, Iloilo Campus 
Tyrone Velez – Columnist, SunStar Davao  
Very Rev. Marco Sulayao – Chairperson, Promotion of Church People’s Response Panay and Guimaras 
Victor Kintanar – Photojournalist, Licas.News         
Walden Bello – Former Congressman; Professor, The State University of New York at Binghamton; National Chairperson of Laban ng Masa
Weldon M. McCarty – Writer
Wilson Gamboa Jr. – Councilor, Bacolod City         
Woodrow Francia – Journalist            
Ysh Cabana – Stop the Killings in the Philippines-Canada Network

Michelle Bachelet
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Agnes Callamard
UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Irene Khan
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Peggy Hicks
Senior Director, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights
(Lead on Violence Against Journalists Strategy)

Guilherme Canela De Souza Godoi
Chief of Section, Section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists

Ming Lim Kuok
UNESCO Jakarta

Moek Chackchouck
Former Assistant Director General, Communications and Information, UNESCO

Christine Delsol
Executive Assistant to Former ADG Chackchouk

Grace Morales
JUSTICE NOW (the organization of families of the 32 slain journalists)

Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network Conveners
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, MindaNews, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and Philippine Press Institute