In the By Shawn W. Crispin
By Shawn W. Crispin
Posted August 18, 2009
When motorcycle-riding assailants shot and fatally wounded Dennis Cuesta along a busy, tree-lined highway here last year, friend and fellow Radio Mindanao Network reporter Bob Flores was walking by his side.
In a twist familiar in journalist killings in the
It was only there and then, in hiding with state-appointed
bodyguards more than 1,000 kilometers from the crime scene, that Flores felt
secure enough to make a sworn statement to investigators identifying Police
Chief Inspector Redempto “Boy” Acharon, first cousin of the mayor of
• CPJ's RecommendationsSince the warrant was issued, local journalists said,
Acharon has been spotted dining in local restaurants and doing chores at his
• Audio Report: Shawn Crispin
• CPJ's Impunity Index
• CPJ Blog: A Call for Justice
Fear of reprisals causes many potential witnesses to look
the other way in violence-prone areas of the
The circumstances surrounding Cuesta’s murder conform to a disturbing pattern in this country: a journalist is shot and killed; local police manipulate the evidence to protect influential people accused in the crime; potential witnesses are intimidated, bought off, or killed so that they never appear in court; the defense employs stalling tactics to break the will of remaining witnesses; the case goes unsolved and the culture of impunity is reinforced.One key to breaking the cycle of violence, public prosecutors and media freedom advocates say, is better care and protection of witnesses. According to Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera, who heads the WPP, about 40 witnesses to media-related killings and another 120 of their family members are now enrolled in the program. That constitutes about a quarter of the nearly 600 people enrolled overall in the program, which covers witnesses to crimes involving criminal syndicates, terrorism, narcotics, and human trafficking. He said the WPP is underfinanced, receiving 83 million pesos (US$1.7 million) in 2008.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has acknowledged
the financial shortfall and promised this year to increase the program’s
funding to more than 140 million pesos. But the promised funds have not
materialized because of political squabbling in the legislature, which has the
final say over budget allocations, according to Dacera. The lack of funds, WPP
The Cuesta case underscores the importance and shortcomings of
the Philippine protection program. It also highlights the wider need to
transfer murder cases in which local officials are implicated from local courts
to more neutral and secure jurisdictions. Public prosecutors in the Cuesta case
have already filed a motion with the Supreme Court to transfer the case to
That security, however, comes at a heavy price: Witnesses must be willing to make extraordinary sacrifices in the pursuit of justice. The Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has recently spotlighted the crucial role of witness protection in combating media killings. “When we got involved with the prosecution of cases, it opened a whole new area of advocacy concerns,” said Melinda DeJesus, the center’s executive director. “These people actually lose their lives. They don’t—and won’t—know life as they knew it before, once they enroll in a witness protection program.”
Sacrificing their lives
The meager lifestyle afforded by the WPP has jeopardized the testimony of at least one other witness in the Cuesta case. Referred to by WPP officials as “Lance,” the young male witness said he was riding his motorcycle on the highway when he saw Cuesta’s killing. Local journalists were the first to publish the young man’s statement; he was later located by WPP officials and encouraged to enroll in the program.
But he has twice left WPP safe houses and, according to
Department of Justice officials, was on his own somewhere in
In other instances, witnesses are paid by powerful defendants to change their testimony. The ongoing court proceedings in the murder of journalist Herson Hinolan may be a case in point. Two state witnesses who initially identified former Lezo Mayor Alfredo Arcenio as Hinolan’s assassin have since recanted their testimony. One of those witnesses had enrolled in the WPP, but later dropped out of the program. In February, the Visayan Daily Star quoted public prosecutor Dacera as saying that the defense had intimidated and offered money to witnesses. Arcenio disputed the accusation.
Witnesses who stay in the WPP are not necessarily out of harm’s way. When assailants shot and severely wounded radio journalist Nilo Labares in March, he became a witness in his own case. After identifying one of the gunmen as a protector of a local gambling racket, Labares took refuge in a WPP safe house—only to have local police overrun the sanctuary to press charges against him for illegal gambling. (In his reports, Labares had not only exposed the gambling operation, he had accused police of being involved.)
Labares has since filed a request with the Supreme Court to
transfer the attempted murder trial of his assailants from Cagayan de Oro City
Government attempts to address impunity in journalist killings have fallen short thus far. A national police initiative known as Task Force USIG was created on the orders of President Arroyo in 2006 to investigate and resolve media killing cases. Although task force records show that police have filed charges in most journalist killings since 2001, the records also show authorities have gained convictions in only three cases.
Police Chief Inspector Henry Libay, a task force member, said in an interview with CPJ that the mishandling of evidence and the lack of willing witnesses are the main impediments to success. He said witnesses shy from testifying out of fear of reprisal, lack of financial support, and a distrust of law enforcement.
“You’ll be next”
That lack of trust is apparent in
That was also the case when Jo Jo Morales, another reporter at his station, was shot and killed on the way home from work in 2005. “Just like in Cuesta’s case,” Josol said, “the accused was not arrested.”
Because Cuesta reported on a wide range of sensitive issues, Josol said it was hard to pinpoint which report might have prompted the murder—although he noted that Cuesta’s reports on illegal gambling touched on potential police involvement. Cuesta also criticized the mayor for city hall’s slow implementation of flood prevention projects, he said.“After one year, the police have done nothing to arrest the suspect because the accused is connected to the mayor,” Josol said. “There have been many instances when the suspect was seen inside his house, at restaurants, on the street, and he still remains free. We report this on the radio and call on national authorities to intervene because we can’t rely on” the local police. Josol said his station’s journalists were receiving new anonymous threats, including text messages that say, “You’ll be next.”
Marcelo Pintac, director of police for
Amid such strong political pressure, many are deeply
skeptical that a fair trial can be held in General
WPP head Dacera said defendants often seek to delay proceedings with the intention of breaking the will of witnesses. “We have witnesses that have been in the program for years, and the cases are just gathering dust,” said Dacera, noting that two or three years of delays can produce “procedural nightmares” for the witnesses involved. “By the time the witnesses do finally testify, they often can’t even remember what they put in their affidavits.”
But that’s not the case with Flores, who said that he will never forget the details of the day his colleague was killed at his side. “I will not quit,” he said, “no matter how long it takes.”
Shawn W. Crispin is CPJ’s senior
CPJ’s recommendations to Philippine authorities:
- The legislature and executive branch should ensure adequate funding for the Witness Protection Program. The legislature should appropriate the 140 million pesos sought by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to fund the program.
- The judicial system should promptly review and approve motions seeking changes of venue in journalist murder cases. In several cases, public prosecutors and attorneys representing victims’ families have filed these motions to ensure neutral and secure venues.
- National police should take assertive and timely enforcement action in response to all reports of intimidation or bribery of witnesses.
- These steps must be part of a broad, nationwide strategy to aggressively prosecute the killers of journalists. Task Force USIG and local authorities must not only file charges, they must apprehend wanted suspects and build strong evidentiary cases against them.