Despite government claims, Philippine murders go unsolved

May 15, 2006

Her Excellency Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
President, Republic of the Philippines
Malacañang Palace
Manila, Philippines

Via Facsimile: +63-2-735-6152

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by recent statements made by presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye and the Philippine National Police (PNP) that many of the cases of journalists killed in the country have been solved and that the cases are unrelated to the issue of press freedom.

Such misleading statements mask the alarming reality: According to CPJ research, there has been just one conviction in the cases of 23 journalists killed for their work since 2000. While the government has made efforts to solve the killings of journalists, none of the powerful figures behind some of these murders have been convicted. This lack of prosecutorial vigor on the part of the government suggests that those who would attack or kill a journalist in the Philippines can still do so with impunity, despite the pledge you made last year to address the problem.

On May 5, spokesman Bunye issued a statement in response to inquiries by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar about the killing of Philippine journalists. “Fifteen of the 30 cases cited by the senator have been solved and cases have been filed in the courts to punish the perpetrators,” Bunye said. We note that the 30 victims on the list of slain journalists that your government provided to Sen. Lugar’s office is higher than CPJ’s figure because we have been unable to confirm that all of the people you listed were killed for their work as journalists.

On the same day, a spokesman for the National Police force told reporters: “The PNP strongly denies reports on the alleged existence of a culture of impunity in the killing of journalists in the country.”

“Reports on the alleged curtailment of press freedom through media killings are unfounded,” the spokesman said, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “The police have been hot on the trail of those responsible.”

Unfortunately, reality falls far short of such claims. Simply filing a murder case is not the same as solving it. Take the case of Roland Ureta, a radio broadcaster shot dead in January 2001 after reporting on alleged local government corruption and police involvement in the drug trade. The document provided by Albert F. del Rosario, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, to Sen. Lugar’s office indicates that a murder case was filed on September 24, 2004, against Jessie Ticar and Amadro Raz. But it fails to mention that, according to local media reports, all charges against the two were dropped in December 2004 despite the objection of Ureta’s family. The Philippine National Police filed an appeal to have the complaint reinstated, but the case has stalled, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

Another case your government considers “solved”–as defined by the police and spokesman Bunye–is that of Gene Boyd Lumawag, a MindaNews photographer killed in Jolo, in Sulu province in Mindanao, in November 2004. More than a year after police filed a murder case against two members of the Islamic separatist Abu Sayyaf group, no one has been apprehended and the investigation appears to be at a standstill. We also note that colleagues and family members have expressed skepticism that Abu Sayyaf was indeed responsible for the killing.

In some cases, hired gunmen have been arrested while the powerful figures apparently behind the murders go free. Four suspects are now being tried in Cebu in the murder of Marlene Garcia Esperat, a columnist who was killed in her home in March 2005. One of them, Randy Barua, told police that two officials from the Mindanao Department of Agriculture, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, had asked him to hire gunmen to kill Esperat. Subsequent murder charges against Montañer and Sabay were dropped on August 31, and the two men continue to work in an official capacity in the province, according to the journalist’s attorney, Nena Santos. They have denied the charges.

And even after suspects are apprehended, swift justice is not guaranteed. The trial of the alleged murderers of radio broadcaster Roger Mariano remains stalled nearly two years after his death in July 2004, as the family awaits response to a petition to move the venue outside the influence of those who had him killed.

By spokesman Bunye’s definition, all of the above cases are considered “solved.” Among the remaining cases the list of irregularities goes on. Many of the journalists’ murderers remain at large. This record led CPJ to name the Philippines in 2005 the “most murderous” country in the world for journalists.

When journalists are killed for their work reporting on corruption and crime, it is a serious strike to press freedom. The unpunished murders of journalists, most of them rural radio broadcasters, have a chilling effect on the press and harm the ability of journalists to report on issues of local and national importance.

Your Excellency, your government took a welcome step forward in prosecuting the killers of journalists in December 2005, when former police officer Guillermo Wapile was sentenced to life in prison for gunning down radio broadcaster Edgar Damalerio in Pagadian City in 2002. The case was recognized around the world as a victory for reporters. Unfortunately, as time passes, the successful prosecution in the Damalerio case looks like an anomaly–not the first step in a vigorous government campaign to bring to justice the killers of journalists.

Denying the problem of impunity for killers of journalists does a great disservice to the Philippine press and to the families of the slain journalists. As an independent organization dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we urge you to ensure the arrest, trial and conviction of those responsible for killing Philippine journalists.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director