Letters   |   Philippines

CPJ seeks justice in murders of Philippine journalists

June 9, 2010 

Senator Benigno S. Aquino III 
Rm. 526, 5th Floor 
GSIS Building 
Financial Center 
Roxas Blvd, Pasay City 
Manila 
Philippines 

Via fax: (632) 552-6601 

Dear President-elect Aquino:

With your recent election to office, we are looking forward to engaging with your administration on press freedom-related issues in the years ahead. It is our particular hope that you will translate your strong electoral mandate into a firm commitment to end the culture of impunity that has resulted in the extraordinarily high number of media killings in the Philippines.

In your campaign speeches and press interviews, you promised repeatedly to break from the corruption that has plagued previous governments and create an independent commission to investigate the various allegations of corruption and misgovernance leveled against outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration.

We recommend that you immediately launch a probe into the circumstances surrounding last November’s Maguindanao massacre, the single deadliest attack against the press anywhere in the world since CPJ started monitoring violations in 1981. Thirty-two journalists and media workers were among the 57 people killed in the election-related violence that has implicated members of the politically influential Ampatuan clan.

Despite the local and international outcry condemning the killings, indications are that the judicial process may be compromised by political considerations. In April, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra dropped charges against two top suspects—Zaldy Ampatuan, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and his uncle, Akmad Ampatuan, former mayor of Mamasapano—against the advice of the public prosecutors working on the case.

Although Agra later reinstated the charges on the basis of newly submitted evidence, his willingness to intervene by overruling the Quezon City Regional Court that is hearing the case underscored how vulnerable judicial processes can be to political pressures in the Philippines. There have also been reports by a highly regarded press group, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, that family members of victims have been approached with offers of money to drop charges against Ampatuan clan members.  

With these developments in mind, we urge you to provide full support and ample resources to the relevant Justice Department agencies to ensure a free, fair, and speedy trial in this landmark case. It is our strong belief that convictions of the masterminds and the assailants involved in the Maguindanao massacre would be a meaningful first step in breaking the cycle of murder and impunity that has taken so many media members’ lives in the Philippines.  

Our concerns about the deteriorating press freedom situation in your country unfortunately are not confined to the Maguindanao killings. Unpunished media killings are endemic: CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, released in April, ranked the Philippines as having the third-worst record in the world for bringing the killers of journalists to justice—trailing only Iraq and Somalia. It is a record unbefitting Asia’s oldest democracy, and should be addressed immediately.

Your predecessor initiated a unit of the Philippines National Police, known as USIG, dedicated to investigating and resolving media and other extrajudicial killing cases. Regrettably, the USIG has been unsuccessful in achieving substantial convictions in 62 of the 68 journalist murder cases recorded since 1992, according to CPJ research. CPJ believes that only partial justice was reached in the other six cases.

Task Force USIG member Police Chief, Henry Libay told CPJ in July 2009 that the mishandling of evidence and a lack of witnesses willing to testify were major impediments to serving justice. He said that witnesses shied from the courtroom out of fears of reprisal, lack of financial support, and a general distrust of law enforcement.

We understand that your administration will face obstacles in reversing these trends and breaking the culture of impunity that has resulted in so many media killings, but this should not be an excuse for inaction. A sincere government commitment to press freedom and the protection of journalists is essential to achieving the democratic aspirations embodied in your strong mandate to rule and reform.   

Again, we look forward to working with you and your administration on protecting journalists and journalism in the Philippines.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon

Executive Director 

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