Statement of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ)
on the failure of the Philippine National Police to arrest the suspects in the murders of Marlene Esperat and Dennis Cuesta

FFFJ is an alliance of six media organizations—the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Press Institute, and the US-based newspaper Philippine News—created to address the killing of journalists in the Philippines and to assist besieged journalists. It provides financial, legal and other support for prosecution of case and for the survivors of slain journalists, as well as for the witnesses in the killings. CMFR serves as the FFFJ Secretariat.

For more information, please call CMFR at the following numbers: (+632) 840-0903 / (+632) 894-1326 / (+632) 894-1314 / (+632) 840-0889 (telefax).

THE PHILIPPINES marks the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino on August 21. Aquino’s assassination emboldened the anti-dictatorship resistance, and led to the ouster of the Marcos regime and his widow Corazon’s assuming the Presidency in 1986. Press freedom and other rights were officially restored during Aquino’s term of office. But 26 years later its full realization is still problematic as reflected in the continuing killing of journalists for their work.

The persistence of the killings has been attributed to a culture of impunity in which the killers and the masterminds have mostly evaded prosecution in a flawed justice system.

The successful prosecution of a criminal case, to which the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) and its member organizations are committed as part of their efforts to dismantle the culture of impunity, depends on several factors, the most basic of which is the arrest of the accused. There is no consolation in having a criminal case filed only to have the court order it archived prior to arraignment simply because the accused is at large. But it continues to happen.

Without the accused in court, there can be no arraignment. This stage of criminal proceedings in the Philippines requires informing the accused of the nature and cause of the charges, and the accused’s personally entering a plea. The rationale behind this rule is due process: the accused must know and understand the charges against him so that he may adequately prepare for his defense.

While the rights of the accused are clearly provided for under the Rules of Court and protected by no less than the Constitution, the right of the plaintiff to justice depends greatly on the efficiency of the prosecution and the law enforcers.

Thus, the coordination between prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies tasked to arrest the accused is crucial. No amount of superb “lawyering” on the part of prosecutors can make up for the failure of law enforcers to arrest the accused.

This is the current snag faced by the criminal cases against the alleged masterminds in the killing of journalists Marlene Esperat and Dennis Cuesta. Criminal proceedings have come to a halt as the accused in the two cases remain at large.

Simply put, the prosecution cannot move forward until the accused are arrested. The proverbial ball is in the court of the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) Task Force Usig.

Task Force Usig is the law enforcement group mandated to investigate incidents of extralegal killings of media practitioners and members of activist organizations, and to arrest the suspects in said killings.
To date, in relation to media killings, there is only one arrest that Task Force Usig can legitimately claim as the result of its efforts.

Despite heeding the order of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to form one tracking team for every identified suspect or accused in the killing of journalists, these teams have yet to yield positive results.

In the case of Esperat, despite the issuance of a third warrant of arrest against accused Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay in October 2008, the Task Force Usig tracking teams cannot even state with certainty the present location of the two accused.

The Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, has denied with finality the motion of Montañer and Sabay to have the case against them quashed or dismissed. Their lawyers have filed before the Court of Appeals (CA), Cagayan de Oro City, a Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition. Among others, they seek the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order to halt criminal proceedings before the Tacurong City RTC. The CA has not yet acted on said petition.

There being no legal impediment to the serving of the warrant of arrest, the failure of Task Force Usig to arrest Montañer and Sabay is a manifestation of the inefficiency of said PNP group. Montañer has left the country via the “back door” and is now in Malaysia, say FFFJ sources.

Cuesta’s case is even more telling. One of the accused, Redempto “Boy” Acharon, is a first cousin of the incumbent General Santos City mayor and was also a police inspector of the city. A second warrant for his arrest was issued early April this year. At present, he remains a free man.
Several residents and media practitioners report having seen the accused in public places such as a restaurant. Yet, Task Force Usig claims his whereabouts is unknown, and the warrant of arrest against its former colleague remains unserved.

Official claims on the part of Department of Justice officials and the Task Force Usig that they are working to turn the wheels of justice for slain journalists are worth nothing in the light of this current situation.

FFFJ calls on the PNP to rigorously locate and arrest the suspects and masterminds in the killing of journalists as the crucial first step for their prosecution. We also call on all media and journalists, as well as the public at large, to demand the same of the PNP. Unless the police do their job first of all, all efforts to stop further killings will be for naught, the failure to prosecute the killers and masterminds being at the root of the persistence of the culture of impunity.

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