It’s been four years since the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009, and three years since Benigno Aquino III assumed the Presidency. The hearings on the petitions for bail of 63 persons out of the 108 accused of planning and carrying out the massacre who are in custody continued to stall the progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial this year, when more than 60 instances of threats, physical assaults, illegal arrests, libel suits and other forms of harassment also occurred all over the Philippines, including in the National Capital Region.
The Department of Justice has assured the public, media organizations, media advocacy groups, and the families of the Massacre victims that at least some of those guilty of planning and carrying out the worst attack on journalists in the Philippines and quite possibly in history will be convicted by the time Mr. Aquino’s term ends in 2016, but many lawyers and other observers say that’s as likely as Mr. Aquino’s listening to sage advice.
The skepticism is understandable in the context of the slow-as-molasses progress of the trial, plus the fact that out of 137 work-related killings of journalists since 1986, there have only been 11 convictions of the trigger men and their accomplices, while no masterminds in non-Ampatuan cases have been prosecuted or even arrested.
The suspected masterminds in the 2005 killing of Marlene Esperat have eluded arrest, and the case against them archived, while their lawyer’s skillful manipulation of legal niceties has enabled the suspected masterminds in the killing of Palawan’s environmental advocate Gerry Ortega to escape prosecution.
To this state of affairs, in Year Four of the Ampatuan Massacre there are also signs that the relative immunity from death threats and murder media practitioners in the National Capital used to enjoy may have come to an end.
Marlina Sumera of radio station DZME was killed in 2011 in the Manila suburb of Malabon. On July 30 this year, Manila tabloid columnists Bonifacio Loreto Jr. and Richard Kho were killed in the NCR’s Quezon City, bringing to three the number of NCR based journalists killed in the last two years.
A total of seven journalists throughout the country were killed for their work this year, bringing the number of journalists killed since Mr. Aquino came to power to 19, or a yearly average during the first three years of his administration to six. Mr. Aquino’s record has pulled his administration ahead of the Arroyo administration’s three-year record (five), the two and half years of the Estrada administration’s three, and the Ramos administration’s two journalists killed per year during the six years it was in power.
Meanwhile, the number and forms of harassment and threats against journalists for this year alone is as disturbing, a sure sign of the continuing reign as well as the consequences of impunity.
ABS-CBN network’s Ces Drilon received several death threats via cellphone over a number of days. In the communities outside Manila, the threats against journalists have included surveillance by the usual men riding in tandem on motorcycles, shots being fired at their homes and places of work, and live bullets sent to them in boxes accompanied in some cases with threatening notes. Physical assaults have also been reported, and journalists banned from press conferences and events of public interest. In one instance a former police chief broke into a broadcaster’s booth, grabbed the microphone to declare that the broadcaster was lying, and then arrested and detained him for supposedly libelous reports even before filing a libel complaint.
The obvious question is why the killers of journalists, and those who resort to physical assaults, threats and others forms of harassment to silence them, have been so emboldened. The likely lead culprit is the demonstration effect of the slow progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, which some lawyers have predicted can take as long as 15 years to conclude, without there even any certainty that the results will be credible. It is a message of impunity the trial has been sending since it began in 2010, when several judges refused to hear the case, and numerous issues including the contamination of evidence of the site and the shortfall in state prosecutors made building the case difficult.
But also of possible relevance is the perception, perhaps unwittingly fostered by Mr. Aquino himself through his frequent criticism of the media, of administration hostility to the press, resulting in the sense that one can get away with threats against journalists and even their murders.
The quick resolution of the Ampatuan trial — and President Aquino’s expressing some modicum of faith in the media’s capacity despite their admitted shortcomings to provide the information a self-proclaimed democracy needs — would have told those planning to silence journalists that neither threats nor the killing of journalists will go unpunished.
It hasn’t been for lack of effort on the part of media organizations and advocacy groups that the administration has failed to address the culture of impunity, at least when it comes to journalists. After Mr. Aquino’s election to the Presidency in 2010, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) coalition of five media groups proposed the adoption of several steps the new administration could take to strengthen the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP), accelerate the pace of criminal trials and the investigation and dissemination of information whenever a journalist is killed, and enhance the forensic skills of the police. Only the increase in the budget of the WPP has been adopted among these proposals.
And yet Mr. Aquino had pledged during the 2010 campaign an end to extrajudicial killings, support for access to information, and the protection of human rights. Rather than diminish, the killing and harassment of journalists have increased in both number and intensity, among other reasons because of administration reluctance to seriously address impunity for its chilling effect on press freedom and on the making of the informed public a democracy needs.
Include among the Aquino administration’s galaxy of failures its inability to protect not only journalists but also such other citizens as environmentalists, political activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, judges, even reformist local officials who have been murdered, but whose killers have yet to be arrested and tried for their crimes.
The culture of impunity has become even more deeply rooted in Philippine society, and the responsibility for that can firmly be laid at the door of what passes for leadership in this country.
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Published in Business World
November 21, 2013