By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – For press freedom advocates revisiting the case of slain journalist and environmentalist Gerry Ortega, the country’s justice system failed to deliver justice even when it had the opportunity.
Jos Barman, research coordinator for Safer World for the Truth Project, said their investigation showed how the country’s panel of investigators never investigated the testimony of the middleman, Rodolfo Edrad, who pointed to then Palawan Governor Joel T. Reyes as mastermind.
A Safer World for the Truth, an initiative of the Free Press Unlimited, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, is revisiting the more than a decade-old killing of Ortega, a prominent broadcaster based in Palawan who was gunned down in 2011.
A Safer World for the Truth Project researchers interviewed police officers, journalists, and reviewed court documents related to the case.
Attacks against witnesses
The report noted the attacks against the witnesses in the Ortega slay.
Edrad told the research team that on Aug. 8, 2021, a police officer paid him a visit and said that he was sent by Reyes to offer him money to exonerate the former governor. He refused. Several days later, on Aug. 25, 2021, Edrad’s house was riddled with bullets.
Edrad now relies on his family and neighbors for daily sustenance as he could no longer go out to earn a living.
Researchers also found the 2013 death of one of the lookouts and witness Dennis Aranas as suspicious. They have also seen multiple lapses by Philippine authorities to manage a death in custody and to effectively investigate the manner of death. This includes the “failure by prison guards to notify the police of the unnatural death of a detainee. Because of this, investigators failed to effectively preserve the scene, which was crucial to any investigation.”
Three autopsies were conducted on Aranas’s remains. However, autopsy reports and crime scene photos, Professor Duarte Nuno Viera, forensic pathologist and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, found that “none of the autopsy reports adhere to the minimal international standards for conducting an autopsy.”
“In conclusion, despite three autopsies being performed, the question whether Aranas was murdered for his role as a witness in the Ortega case remains unanswered,” the report read.
What Ortega covered as a journalist
Ortega’s colleagues have long said that he was killed due to his critical reporting over the alleged misuse of at least P3.9 billion ($76 million) funds from the controversial Malampaya gas project.
Dempto Anda, editor-in-chief of Palawan News, said he and Ortega collaborated on several reports on it. Among the big issues they covered was that of a special audit report by the Commission on Audit, which essentially said that the funds were misused.
“Up until the time of his murder, we were discussing that – an hour before he was shot in his radio program. I was there when his body was still lying on the ground, in the pavement near a thrift shop, very near his veterinary clinic. Things were never the same after that,” Anda said during the online press conference.
Anda said it took a month for investigators to piece together a case that identified then Gov. Joel Reyes as mastermind.
Apart from Reyes, his brother Mario Reyes, former Coron town mayor, was also identified as among the accused in Ortega’s killing.
Reyes was later arrested in Thailand. He was, however, released in 2018 after the Court of Appeals ruled to stop the trial, citing lack of evidence. A year later, in 2019, the appellate court reinstated the case. On July 14, 2021, a local court in Palawan issued another warrant of arrest against Reyes.
While still on the run, Joel Reyes has filed his candidacy for governor of Palawan in the 2022 elections.
“We have been covering the elections and we have not seen him,” Anda said of Reyes.
NUJP Chairperson Jonathan de Santos called on authorities to enforce the arrest warrant and make Reyes face trial for the killing of Ortega.
“More broadly, we join the call for continuing reforms that would help preserve crime scenes, speed up investigations and prosecution of those who attack journalists,” De Santos said.
Rise of attacks, self-censorship
At a regional level, Daniel Bastard, Asia Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, noted the strong violence aimed at journalists. The Philippines, he said, remains one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists with at least four killed every year.
He also noted the worrying rise of self-censorship among news outfits.
“These two different trends are very intertwined because self-censorship has to deal with the fact that violence against journalists is unpunished. The key word for these is impunity,” Bastard said.
It is important, he said, that they are able to revisit cases of journalist killings like that of Ortega’s to ensure that impunity will cease and that journalists will feel “empowered to reveal reports that are sensitive.” (RVO)