Family of murdered journalist seeks justice

Manila, June 18, 2002—The family of slain Filipino broadcast journalist Edgar Damalerio said they are facing harassment and obstruction as they search for justice in the May 13 murder.

They have traveled with a key witness to the crime to Manila from their home in the southern Philippines to present affidavits to senior police officials and press for the arrest of a key suspect in the case.

According to the family, authorities questioned and then released a police officer that witnesses have identified as the gunman. The suspect was identified in news reports as Patrolman Guillermo Wapile. Although Wapile is confined to quarters at a military camp in the custody of a commanding officer, he has yet to be formally charged in the murder.

The problem, said Damalerio’s sister, Fe Balaba, is that local police have been dragging their feet on the case, refusing to pursue leads aggressively. “Our only hope is to get the national police authorities to order a thorough investigation,” she said.

To that end, a witness, Edgar Amoro, accompanied the family to Manila with a sworn affidavit saying that he was riding next to Damalerio on the night the prize-winning radio commentator was murdered as he was driving his open-sided jeep through the streets of Pagadian City, several hundred miles south of Manila on the island of Mindanao.

According to Amoro, two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside the jeep, and the man on the back of the motorcycle opened fire on the vehicle, killing Damalerio.

After Amoro and another passenger in the jeep named Wapile as the gunman, Wapile was briefly detained and then released, according to the family. News reports saying he was arrested are incorrect, added the family.

The family said that both witnesses to the crime are now facing death threats. The victim’s widow, Maria Gemma Damalerio, 33, has gone into hiding, along with the couple’s five-month old baby boy. “We are now afraid for our own lives,” said the widow.

Known for biting exposés
Damalerio, 34, hosted a daily radio program on station DXKP and was a managing editor of the local Zamboanga Scribe newspaper. He also hosted the first local television talk show in Pagadian City, on cable Channel 16.

Damalerio was known for biting exposés of local crime and corruption. He had recently uncovered corruption in a local electric cooperative and was also investigating several local land swindles, said Amoro, who noted that poor people in the area frequently turned to Damalerio for help against injustice. Damalerio also frequently criticized alleged corruption among senior police authorities in Pagadian City.

In December 2001, the respected Association of Filipino Broadcasters (KBP) gave Damalerio the prestigious Golden Dove Award for best provincial public affairs program.

In the days before the crime, family members said that armed men were following Damalerio and that threats against him had increased. “He called me just before he was shot and told me to lock the house and be very careful,” said his widow.

A local police chief, Police Superintendent Asuri Hawani, who was a frequent target of Damalerio’s commentary, was relieved from duty by Manila officials after the crime, apparently because of suspicion that he may have been involved in ordering the attack, said news reports in the Philippines. The family said that no other action has been taken against Hawani.

Sadly familiar frustration
The frustration felt by Damalerio’s relatives is sadly familiar to victims of serious crimes in parts of the Philippines. A confusing tangle of investigative agencies and local political influence can lead to cases being delayed by paperwork and bureaucratic infighting for years.

In the Damalerio case, different agencies seem to have faced off against each other. The National Bureau of Investigation, roughly the equivalent of the United States’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, is pursuing charges against Wapile but does not have the power to order an arrest.

The local prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, has refused to file charges in the case, citing conflicting accounts of the crime, said Damalerio’s family. In one bizarre twist, prime suspect, Wapile himself, according to court papers, accused key witness, Amoro of being an accessory to the crime, an idea scoffed at by the family.

The confusion faced by the family is aggravated by the fact that they must now hire their own attorney to act in the role of a “private prosecutor” to follow the case through the courts and police agencies. “We are poor people,” said Gemma Damalerio. “How can we ever follow through with all of this?”

Attempts to reach police authorities in Pagadian City by telephone from Manila to discuss the status of the case were unsuccessful.

A total of 38 journalists have been killed as a result of their work in the Philippines since democracy was restored here in 1986, making the country one of the most dangerous in the world for reporters. No one has been convicted in any of the slayings.

“The Philippines’ abysmal record on prosecuting murderers of journalists represents a grave threat to press freedom and to democracy in general,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York­based Committee to Protect Journalists.