By CARLOS CONDE
Human Rights Watch
Media freedom advocates in the Philippines scored a rare victory when a court convicted an alleged gunman in the killing of broadcaster Miguel Belen. The court, in the province of Camarines Sur, last week sentenced Eric Vargas to a 40-year prison term for the July 2010 murder of Belen in Sorsogon City. Killers of journalists in the Philippines almost always elude justice.
According to data from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, only 14 of the 172 such cases filed in court after the Philippines’ People Power revolution in 1986 have ended in a conviction. President Benigno Aquino III has said that his administration is pursuing the prosecution of those behind the killings “with the end in view of arresting every culprit regardless of whether [the victim] was a media individual, an activist, or any other individual.” Despite that rhetoric, convictions have been rare while the body count has steadily risen: 30 journalists have been murdered since Aquino took office in 2010. Even worse, not a single mastermind of these killings has been prosecuted and convicted.
A case in point is that of Gerry Ortega, a broadcaster and environmentalist murdered in January 2011. Although one of the suspects, Marlon Recamata, confessed to killing Ortega and implicated former Palawan governor Joel T. Reyes and his brother Mario as the masterminds behind the murder, both men remain at large.
Government inaction not only denies families of victims justice, but it puts others at risk. In a May 2014 report, Human Rights Watch linked the killing of broadcaster Rogelio Butalid to a “death squad” in the southern city of Tagum, financed and directed by then-Tagum City Mayor Rey Chiong Uy. A witness told Human Rights Watch that one of Uy’s gunmen killed Butalid. Former death squad members as well as a top police official also implicated Uy in Butalid’s murder. But to date, Philippines authorities have taken no action against Uy and his accomplices. Meanwhile, Uy is contemplating another run for Tagum City mayor in 2016 elections.