CPJ welcomes verdict in murder of Philippine reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat

New York, October 6, 2006-The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes today’s conviction and sentencing of three people in the 2005 murder of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat, but it calls on the government to aggressively pursue the prosecution of those who allegedly ordered the killing. CPJ also urged authorities to redouble their efforts in investigating the many unsolved journalist murders in the Philippines.

“While we’re pleased that important steps have been taken in prosecuting the killers of our colleague Marlene Garcia-Esperat, we urge authorities to complete their work in this case by trying those who are accused of ordering this terrible crime,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Today’s verdict shows that the government can deliver justice in the murders of journalists-but much more needs to be done.”

Judge Eric Menchavez sentenced Estanislao Bismanos, Gerry Cabayag, and Randy Grecia to 30 to 40 years apiece in prison, according to Philippine news reports. The three had pleaded guilty in the killing, saying they had been hired to assassinate the columnist because of her exposes on corruption in Mindanao Department of Agricuture, according to news reports. Citing a lack of evidence, the judge acquitted a military intelligence officer, Rowie Barua, who had cooperated with authorities. The decisions were handed down in the Cebu Regional Trial Court after a 19-month legal proceeding.

Garcia-Esperat, 45, was shot in the head on March 24, 2005, in front of her two horrified children in their home in the city of Tacurong. Garcia-Esperat wrote a weekly anti-graft column, “Madame Witness,” in the Midland Review in the southern island of Mindanao, and she hosted a program on radio station DXKR. Task Force Newsmen, a Philippine National Police unit launched by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 to track down journalists’ killers, made the first arrests in the case two weeks after the shooting.

As the verdict was announced in Cebu, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales ordered the reinstatement of murder charges against two Agriculture Department officials suspected of masterminding the murder, finance officer Osmeña Montañer and accountant Estrella Sabay. Charges had been dropped against the two officials last year, but Gonzales said evidence presented in the case supported the reinstatement, The Associated Press reported.

Garcia-Esperat’s reports had accused the two officials of misuse of government funds allocated to buy fertilizer. Although she was under police protection because of death threats at the time of slaying, she had let her two guards leave early that day for the Easter holiday.

CPJ research shows that at least 29 Philippine journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work over the past 15 years, making the country fifth deadliest in the world for reporters. Other organizations using different criteria have cited even higher numbers of deaths.

The Philippine National Police considers about half of journalist murders to be solved, although its standard is the mere identification of a suspect and the filing of a legal case. CPJ’s own research shows the country’s impunity rate to be well over 90 percent. CPJ considers a case solved and justice served when both perpetrators and masterminds are convicted.

See CPJ’s worldwide analysis of journalist deaths, “Deadly News”: http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2006/deadly_news/deadly_news.html