MANILA — Kath Cortez was still a communication arts student at Notre Dame of Marbel University when the single deadliest attack on journalists took place in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009.
Cortez recalled joining a team who went to Ampatuan to recover the bodies of 58 individuals, of whom 32 were journalists. A distant relative was among the victims. “The bodies were covered with ice. Stench of formalin and Lysol (a disinfectant) filled the air, “ Cortez said in Filipino during the commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the massacre, Nov. 23 at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.
“That incident was enraging,” Cortez, who went on to become a journalist, said. Now a member of the national directorate of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) based in Davao City, Cortez said that the past nine years has been tiring but they’re hoping that the primary suspects would soon be convicted.
The Quezon City Regional Trial Court handling the case stated in a briefer that of the 197 accused, 117 were arrested and 80 remain at large. Five of the suspects died, including Andal Ampatuan Sr. One hundred four accused remain on trial.
The prosecution panel has announced that the case against Unsay Andal Ampatuan Jr. is already submitted for decision. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that the decision is expected early next year.
In a joint statement, relatives of the victims expressed confidence that the evidence presented is enough to prove Datu Unsay’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. “We meet this news with renewed vigor and relief, for we have waited too long and have given so much to the case over the years,” they said.
The NUJP also welcomed Guevarra’s statement but added, “…[w]e also hope this does not signal any intervention by the executive branch that could lead to a miscarriage of justice.”
In a separate statement, the Altermidya People’s Media Network noted the past developments it deemed as “insult to the memory of those killed in the Massacre.” These include the court’s allowing one of the prime suspects, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, to attend his daughter’s wedding last August, and Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan’s being out on bail together with ten others accused of involvement in the crime.
The NUJP added, “And while a closure to this tragedy is most welcome, we stress that it should not in any way detract from the State’s continued accountability for its continued failure to bring an end to the threats and attacks against journalists and to give justice to the more than 100 other victims of media killings since 1986.”
Philippine media under Duterte
The Freedom for Media, Freedom for All network revealed that 12 journalists have been killed under the Duterte administration. The network documented 99 cases of direct and indirect assaults against journalists and media outfits. These include online harassment, libel, slay attempt, verbal threats/assaults, website attack, cyberlibel, arrest, barred from coverage, among others.
Nearly half or 44 of the cases involved state agents of public officials, the network said.
The groups noted that under the Duterte administration, “never has so much darkness hovered over the prospects of free and independent journalism since the democratic recovery of 1986.”
The media groups called on Filipinos “to support press freedom and to come to the defense of those in media who struggle working within the narrowing space and time, to counter false narratives and disinformation, and to check the abuse of power.”
Earlier this week, relatives of victims visited the massacre site and held a program led by NUJP.
Children of the Ampatuan massacre victims recite a poem they wrote.
“The children were so angry when they saw the tarpaulins bearing the faces of the Ampatuans,” Dabet Castaneda-Panelo, NUJP secretary general, told Bulatlat. “We are really hoping for conviction of the primary suspects.”