Philippine journalist murders far from solved, mission finds

Manila, Philippines, June 26, 2005—Despite Philippine government claims that it has solved more than half of journalist murders since 1986, a joint mission by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance has found that the official definition of “solved cases” is misleading, that justice has not been served in the vast majority of cases, and that journalists in remote provinces remain vulnerable to fatal attacks.

The mission membersCPJ Asia Program Coordinator Abi Wright, SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay, and Lin Neumann, executive editor of The Standard of Hong Kongvisited Manila and provinces in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, meeting with a wide range of journalists, victims’ families, media executives, press freedom advocates, police and justice officials, and local government representatives.

At the end of the week-long mission, CPJ and SEAPA voiced deep concerns about the festering culture of impunity. A climate of violence and intimidation continues to threaten the press and has made the Philippines the “most murderous” country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research released in May.

“Corruption, easy access to guns, an often-unresponsive justice system, and a breakdown of law and order combine to create a very dangerous environment for the media,” Wright said. “Convicting those responsible for these heinous crimes against the press is the only way to stop this deadly trend.”

Alampay said: “Of all the cases the government has investigated so far, only a handful has come close to true resolution. The government must hold itself to higher standards of action and results so that officials are not lulled into a complacency that would encourage more violence against journalists.”

The team noted that the government applies a limited police definition for a “solved” case: the identification of suspects and the filing of criminal charges against them. But nothing less than the convictions of killers-—and the actual masterminds behind the murdersshould be accepted as an indicator of the government’s success in this campaign, the mission members said.

CPJ and SEAPA said the government’s creation of the investigative Task Force Newsmen has been a positive development and has resulted in the filing of criminal cases against suspected murderers. Beyond the hard work of police, however, the CPJ-SEAPA mission said much remains to be addressed by government. They noted:

  • Many suspects remain at large. The alleged killers of Edgar Amoro—a key witness in the 2002 murder of Edgar Damalerio who was himself killed this yearhave been seen recently in Pagadian City, Mindanao. The suspect in the 2001 murder of radio commentator Rolando Ureta was set free despite eyewitness testimony placing him at the crime scene.
  • Few of the actual masterminds have been identified. Even when they are, as in the March murder of crusading columnist Marlene Esperat, they remain at large.
  • Corrupt public officials are targeting journalists. In as many as half of the cases from the last five years, mayors or other local government officials have been linked to the murders. Those cases include the murders of radio commentators Herson Hinolan and Rowell Endrinal, and Jun Pala.
  • Witnesses fear for their lives, safety, and family, and are hesitant to testify. That hampers prosecution of cases such as the murder of radio broadcaster Roger Mariano.
  • Greater investigation is needed in several cases, such as the November 2004 murder of photographer Gene Boyd Lumawag.

Mission members noted progress in the Damalerio trial, which is nearing a verdict in a Cebu court after years of obstacles. A change in venue from Mindanao this year was a crucial step toward a fair trial, they said, and its outcome could set an example for other cases.

“The Philippine government faces the clear challenge of providing a safe and fair environment for the investigation and prosecution of these cases,” Alampay said.

Editors, station managers, and other journalists are increasingly aware of the need to act in response to threats. In two recent casesin the central city of Cebu and in Kalibo, in Aklan provincejournalists under threat effectively mobilized the press in their defense.

The CPJ-SEAPA mission noted trends in the profiles of the slain journalists. For example, a majority of journalists killed in recent years were freelance radio broadcasters based in isolated rural areas. This growing understanding of the threat, they said, could better enable the media and free press advocates to intervene.