PH Impunity and Government’s Denial: Unnecessary response to the killing of journalists and other HRVs
“ON THE JOB” (OTJ) was a film directed by Erik Matti in 2013 which he followed with a sequel, a mini-series in 2020. The movie dramatized a bizarre killing system, the deployment of prison inmates to accomplish an assassination. So far, the plot and characters in the movie are aligned with the persons of interest identified by those investigating the real-life killing of broadcaster Percival Mabasa. Popularly known as Percy Lapid, his critical comments against some high-ranking government officials were allegedly the main reason for his murder. (See: “The Percy Lapid Case: ‘On the Job’s’ Macabre Premise Realized”)
But “OTJ” was not the first Filipino film to feature the killing of journalists. In 2011, Joel Lamangan’s “Deadline: The Reign of Impunity,” presented ceaseless attacks against journalists, with so many killed and so few perpetrators punished. While it did not explore the ways killers evade arrest or capture, the vulnerability of journalists it portrayed remains real and relevant to this day.
November 23, the date of the Ampatuan massacre, was first proposed at a general meeting of members of International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) as the International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) for Crimes against Journalists. However, the United Nations proclaimed November 2 as the IDEI.
But Filipino journalists have kept this date a milestone etched in mind and memory – the single most bloody attack against journalists in the world. Thirty-two journalists with 26 other civilians traveling in Ampatuan were stopped at a check-point, driven to the hills where they were gunned down and hastily buried in a mass grave.
It took nearly ten years for Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 in Quezon City found the primary accused guilty. The decision, however, is on appeal, as those convicted have filed their cases for review.
In November this year, the Philippines went through its scheduled Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). On November 14, Justice Secretary Jose “Boying” Remulla said: We will dispel the mistaken notion that there is a ‘culture of impunity’ in our country.
Remulla denied the shrinking media and civic space and spoke glowingly of the country’s “vibrant democracy, where freedom of expression” is protected. He also said that there is no state policy to attack or intimidate human rights defenders, lawyers and media workers.
Remulla’s statements were aligned with the pronouncements by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri. On November 8, the senator said it was “unfair” for the UNHRC to pin down the country for human rights violations. He denied that the killing of broadcaster Lapid had caused a chilling effect on the media.
Investigation of the case has tagged high-ranking officials of the New Bilibid Prison and some inmates. Zubiri pointed out that the speedy identification of the mastermind in Lapid’s killing should be highlighted by the media to project that the country’s justice system works. He added that that the media should help the government “beautify” the country’s image.
Some of the media responded sharply to this official talk. Reports on the UPR included the recommendations by member countries of the UNHRC – for government to address the issue of impunity, and the repeated attacks, including the killing of journalists and critics, which have gone unpunished.
While the investigation of the death of Percy Lapid began promptly, with officials sharing the findings from day to day, actual charges have yet to be filed.
Meanwhile, the primary accused for the massacre in Ampatuan of 58 persons, 32 of whom were journalists, have filed their appeals for the review of the 2019 RTC decision that found them guilty.
Impunity in the killing of Journalists
The Philippines ranks seventh in the 2022 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The country has consistently been among the top offenders since the Index was launched in 2008. There has been little change in the conditions of impunity when those implicated have wealth and power. They have the means to hire lawyers who can work their way through the technicalities of the legal system. They may use connections to tamper with evidence, silence witnesses, and delay the process for decades.
CMFR has described the conditions that contribute to repeated attacks and threats against journalists and the failure to punish these acts, including the killings of journalists, even when perpetrated by state agents. These are listed as follows:
- A gun culture fostering endemic violence;
- Participation of law enforcement agents in criminal activities;
- Poor state of forensic investigation to preserve chain of evidence and scene of crime and other aspects of criminal investigation, leading to a dependence on witness testimonies;
- An inadequate witness protection program;
- A legal system that enables lawyers to manipulate the rules and regulations of the court;
- A failure to review the system so it can be corrected.
Impunity persists because it is a culture rooted in conditions that have not been addressed. Impunity has revealed that the laws and the conduct of government are no longer based on justice and its related principles of truth.
The CMFR database has recorded cases since 1986, currently showing a total of 176 journalists killed for their work. At least 93 or only 53 percent of the cases (including Ampatuan), has reached the court. In 39 cases, several charges against suspects were dismissed; in 36 cases, several suspects were acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence; nine cases were archived.
Of the 176, at least 19 or 11 percent resulted in convictions, 50 or 28 percent of the 31 cases prosecuted for the Ampatuan Massacre included.
Excluding Amptuan, only in three other cases have the masterminds been brought to court:
- Herson Hinolan. In the case of Hinolan, former Lezo Aklan Mayor Alfredo Arcenio was convicted of homicide on 11 August 2016.
Hinolan was killed by a masked man, later identified as then Lezo Aklan mayor Arcenio, on 15 November 2004 while at a local carnival. The broadcaster was then station manager of dyIN Bombo Radyo Aklan and hosted the program “Bombohanay Bigtime.”
The family of Hinolan filed murder charges against Arcenio before the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office on 14 November 2004. But the prosecutor’s office downgraded the charges to homicide on 3 March 2005.
- Marlene Esperat. In the case of Esperat only the gunman and his accomplices were convicted. The trial revealed the identity of the two masterminds, two regional government officials succeeded to evade arrests and remained free as the cases against them were put indefinitely on hold.
Esperat was killed on 24 March 2005 while she was having dinner with her children at her home in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat. Before her killing, Esperat wrote columns for The Midland Review exposing corruption inside the Department of Agriculture (DA) which involved high ranking officials not only in the region but also national officials. Esperat also filed several cases before the Ombudsman in relation to these exposes.
On 6 October 2006, three of the six accused in Esperat’s murder were convicted: Former Sgt. Estanislao Bismanos; Gerry Cabayag, the confessed gunman; and Randy Grecia. Another accused, Rowie Barua, a former intelligence officer of the military who acted as coordinator, was released after becoming a state witness.
The cases for the two alleged masterminds, then DA Region XII finance officer Osmeña Montañer and accountant Estrella Sabay, were archived after the suspects deferred pending the Court of Appeals ruling on their certiorari petition.
In 2015, MindaNews reported that Montañer was spotted in a public gathering in Lanao del Sur.
- Gerry Ortega. The masterminds in the Ortega case remained free despite ongoing cases filed against them.
DWAR-FM broadcaster and known critic of the local government and mining companies in the province, Gerry Ortega was gunned down on 24 January 2011 in a store in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The court established Ortega’s expose of Joel Reyes’ alleged misuse of the Malampaya gas funds as motive for his murder.
In 2013, gunman Marlon Recamata was convicted for murder.
The masterminds, former Coron mayor Mario Reyes and brother Joel Reyes, fled to Thailand in 2012 to avoid arrest. In 2015, the brothers were deported for overstaying and the deportation revived the legal proceeding of the Ortega case.
In 2016, Arturo “Nonoy” Regalado, a close aide of Joel, was sentenced to reclusion perpetua after the court established that he provided the money to purchase the gun used in Ortega’s murder.
Also in 2016, Mario was allowed to post bail of PHP 500,000. He and his brother ran for mayor and vice mayor of Coron in the 2016 elections, but lost. Joel ran for a gubernatorial position in the 2022 election, and lost. Both are out of jail, Joel’s freedom itself needs explaining as his petition to bail was denied in 2016.
Some of the convictions can still be challenged:
- In the case of Sunrise FM broadcaster Desiderio Camangyan (killed 14 June 2010), the conviction of the alleged gunman, then PO1 Dennis Jess Esteban Lumikid, was reversed by the Supreme Court (SC) in September 2020 due to inconsistencies on the witness’ statements in identifying the accused as the gunman. The SC ordered his immediate release.
- Only 31 of the 32 cases of journalist killings in the Ampatuan Massacre was decided in September 2019 with the conviction of 28 suspects including masterminds Datu Andal Jr. and Zaldy Ampatuan. The Ampatuans filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals in January 2020.
These cases are clear signs that perpetrators can be free of accountability and protected from punishment. The endemic violence in the country, widespread ownership of guns, the corruption of law enforcement agencies and the weakness of forensic investigation, along with a broken judicial system – impunity has many causes.
Combined conditions have built up a culture that many recognize as a given in Philippine society. Politics lies at the heart of these long-standing state of affairs. The poor state of forensic investigation and the widespread use of guns have led to the use of violence to achieve objectives. The violence targets not just journalists, but also human rights defenders, political and social activists. In other words, those who question the system, shed light on secret matters, expose hidden practices get in the way of those who have grown accustomed to having it their way because they can.
The culture of impunity emerges from a political culture which has grown more mean and menacing, creating a culture of fear and intimidation. In the period of pandemic, it has been most difficult to undertake collective activities for protest and resistance.
Denial, not an accurate response
Remulla and Zubiri’s claims speak volumes about the official position of government HRV. These statements dismissed the role of military and police and even officials in red-tagging, in banning books and other documents in university libraries. Both officials boast that the prompt and quick investigation of the Lapid is an achievement; as though the case has already been resolved. But like the quick track of the Ampatuan case which was filed a mere month after the massacre, the trial, if and when it happens, will take a long time. When the accused are first brought to court, it will have just begun the long process of justice.
For the victims who lost their lives in that grisly attack in 2009, the wait of almost ten years for the decision was already a betrayal of justice.
Impunity is rooted precisely in the failure of leaders to acknowledge that the judicial system is broken. There are areas that can be repaired, but a more fundamental approach is needed. It starts with a government that recognizes the principle of limits to what it can do. Impunity is not just the result of a broken system. Its cause is rooted in the failure to accept the limitations of official power.
Advocates and activists can only do so much. The reform must begin with those in power, which at this point appears a most hopeless prospect.