By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Finding no justice here in the Philippines, families of five slain journalists in Mindanao have filed complaints against the Philippine government before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC).
The families of journalists Dennis Cuesta, Maricel Vigo, Juan Pala, Fernando Lintuan, and William Yap Yu said that the Philippine government violated the right to life of their loved ones under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Philippines is a signatory to the ICCPR. They filed the complaint on March 4.
The five journalists were killed in separate instances across a time span of eight years, from 2000 to 2008. No one has been convicted for these murders.
Harry Roque of the CenterLaw Philippines and one of the lawyers of the families said “the woeful response by the Philippines to these murders has contributed to the impunity for media killings in the country, culminating in the tragic Maguindanao massacre of 2009.”
“It’s not surprising that we’re ranked by the CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] as the third deadliest country in the world for journalists to work in – and what is the government doing to address this issue? What has it done for these families?” Roque said.
Of the five cases of murder, only one has an identified suspect.
Cuesta who worked for RMN-DXMD in General Santos City, was shot by motorcycle-riding men while he walked along the National Highway in General Santos City, Aug. 4, 2008. At that time, Cuesta was with a colleague Bob Flores. Cuesta died in hospital five days after the incident.
Flores identified Police Chief Inspector Redempto “Boy” Acharon, first cousin of the mayor of General Santos City, Pedro Acharon Jr., as one of the gunmen. Acharon remains at large to this day.
Meanwhile, Vigo, a co-host at a local radio program in Kidapawan City, and her husband George were shot dead at close range by two assailants while on their way home on June 19, 2006. A Newsbreak report cited a letter from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) stating that based on their initial investigation, the gunmen were military operatives and that a politician might have [had a] hand in the killing of the spouses.
Meanwhile, Lintuan, a columnist at the Sun Star and blocktimer at DXGO radio station, was shot dead by two motorcycle-riding men on December 24, 2007, while driving his car along Duterte Street, at the corner of R. Castillo Avenue in Davao.
The NBI arrested a suspect, one Leonilo B. Larosa – a man many believed was a fall guy – and charged him in court. In April 2009, Larosa was acquitted of murder due to insufficient evidence.
Yap Yu, published of Pagadian City Star, was shot dead by an assassin in Pagadian City on May 14, 2000, based on an account from an International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). Several witnesses described the profile of the gunman but no one has been arrested to this day in relation to the killing.
Meanwhile, Pala, host of the radio programs “Isumbong Mo kay Pala” (Tell Pala) and “Aksyon Radyo” (Action Radio) on dxGO in Davao City, was murdered on Sept. 6, 2003 by two unidentified assailants. No one has been apprehended in connection to the killing.
In a separate statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) Davao chapter, noted the low conviction rate of perpetrators of journalist killings, ascribing it to “the influence of those in power on the justice system and on state agents, the ineptitude of authorities to handle the case.”
The NUJP-Davao chapter added that while the government promptly creates task forces after each time a journalist is killed, the group deemed that the task forces prove to be “mere token acts or at worst, being used to cover-up the real killers.”
Assault on Press Freedom
The lawyers for the victims’ families said the killings also amount to a direct assault on the right to free expression. They pointed out that the Philippine government has an obligation under international law to protect journalists from any act that would curtail the enjoyment of any citizen’s freedom of expression.
“The murder of journalists is undoubtedly the most extreme way to impair these freedoms,” Roque and Romel Regalado Bagares of the CenterLaw, said.
Glimmer of Hope
“We commend the effort of CenterLaw Philippines for this initiative which comes at a time we feel there is no end to the killing of journalists in our land, and the search for justice have evaded the victims,” the NUJP-Davao said in a statement. “Finding redress in an international arena, in a way, provides relief and hope for the families in their struggle to attain justice,” the group said.
Jessie Casalda, NUJP-Davao chairman, said they would like to see the international courts call the attention and pressure the Philippine government to do its obligations to protect its people and protect freedom of the press.
“We lament that our quest to stop the impunity, to protect our fellow media workers, is still a long way to go. But with every step we are taking, with the support of various groups, advocates of human rights, and this initiative to file cases to the UNCHR, we feel we are taking a fresh step anew,” Casalda said.