The Philippines remained one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, but it also became one of the more litigious as numerous criminal defamation lawsuits were filed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband and other political figures. A deteriorating political situation and increased security concerns in February led Arroyo to declare a state of emergency and prompted her government to take a series of repressive actions against the press.
The administration billed the state of emergency as a way to preempt a coup by dissident soldiers, communist groups, and political opponents. It quickly issued broad guidelines that barred reporting considered destabilizing, and it positioned troops around the Manila headquarters of the country’s two largest television broadcasters, ABS-CBN and GMA-7.
Without a warrant, national police raided the facilities of The Daily Tribune in Manila, seizing editorial materials and padlocking its printing presses for one night. The paper, which was known for its critical news coverage of Arroyo’s administration, had run a series of articles earlier in February that predicted and analyzed the government’s possible motives for imposing a state of emergency.
After lifting martial law on March 3, the government filed sedition charges against the paper’s publisher, Ninez Cacho-Olivares, and columnists Ike Seneres and Herman Tiu-Laurel. Cacho-Olivares told CPJ that the indictment did not specify the offending Daily Tribune articles or columns, and she later won a Supreme Court appeal on grounds that the constitution protected press freedom during times of national crisis.
Still, government officials and their close associates continued to harass the press, filing a string of criminal libel cases against several journalists at a time. On October 2, a court in the city of Barangay Santa Fe issued arrest warrants for Publisher Rudy Apolo and 10 staff members of the Asian Star Journal and Asia Star Balita based on a criminal defamation complaint filed by provincial Gov. Irineo Maliksi. The governor took issue with the papers’ reporting on alleged corruption in a government rice purchase.
On October 16, the Manila Regional Trial Court issued arrest warrants for nine editorial staff members of the English-language daily Malaya in relation to a criminal libel suit filed by Jose Miguel Arroyo, the president’s husband. The suit stemmed from a May 19, 2004, report alleging that Arroyo was involved in attempted vote-rigging in favor of his wife during the 2004 presidential election—charges he strongly denied.
Arroyo filed at least 10 different criminal libel lawsuits against 43 different journalists seeking damages totaling 70 million pesos (US$1.4 million). Penalties for criminal libel convictions in the Philippines also include imprisonment of six months to six years. In response to politicians’ use of criminal libel suits, a coalition of more than 600 journalists and 30 local and foreign international media freedom organizations issued a joint petition calling for the decriminalization of libel.
At least three Philippine journalists were killed in retaliation for their reporting, bringing to 32 the total number of reporters killed for their work over the past 15 years, CPJ research shows.
President Arroyo, who has repeatedly vowed to better protect the press, established a national police unit in 2004 to track down journalists’ killers. The unit has made some inroads, but government spokesmen have overstated its progress. In response to inquiries made by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, spokesman Ignacio Buyne issued a public statement in May claiming that roughly half of Philippine journalist murders had been solved. But by the government’s definition, a case is considered “solved” merely when a suspect is identified and some type of court case filed—regardless of whether the case results in a conviction. Research by CPJ, which considers a case solved when killers and masterminds are convicted, shows that the impunity rate in the Philippines is well over 90 percent.
Progress was made in one high-profile case. On October 6, a judge in Cebu convicted three suspects in the March 2005 murder of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat, sentencing each to 30 to 40 years in prison. The three gunmen—Estanislao Bismanos, Gerry Cabayag, and Randy Grecia—pleaded guilty and testified that they had been hired to assassinate Garcia-Esperat in retaliation for her stories about corruption in Mindanao’s Department of Agriculture.
As the verdict was announced, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales ordered the reinstatement of murder charges against the two agriculture officials suspected of masterminding the murder, finance officer Osmeña Montañer and accountant Estrella Sabay. Charges against the two officials had been dropped the previous year, but Gonzales said evidence presented in the case supported their reinstatement, The Associated Press reported.
Yet with other investigations progressing slowly, the culture of impunity remained firmly in place. In May, two gunmen on motorcycles shot radio commentator Fernando Batul six times as he drove to work at DZRH in Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island. His murder came a week after two hand grenades and a threatening letter were left at his home.
Police officer Aaron Madamay Golifardo was later arrested and charged with Batul’s murder. In a May 11 broadcast, Batul had criticized Golifardo for allegedly showing a weapon during a disagreement with a waitress in a karaoke bar, according to news reports. Hearings in Golifardo’s trial began in September. The other person on the motorcycle was not immediately identified. Batul, a former vice mayor, was also highly critical of city government, and his reporting often touched on alleged government corruption and nepotism.
The next month brought another pair of murders on another island—under strikingly similar circumstances. Two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed radio broadcasters George and Maricel Vigo on the island of Mindanao while the couple were walking home from a public market. George Vigo was a contributor to the Bangkok-based, church news agency Union of Catholic Asian News. His wife, Maricel, hosted a radio program on local station DXND. The couple had earlier founded a tabloid called The Headliner, which sought to expose police and government corruption. That newspaper’s office was mysteriously burned down in 2001.
Police painted the two journalists’ deaths as a retaliatory act by the New People’s Army (NPA), a militant Communist group. The couple, previously active in left-wing student groups, had cultivated contacts within the NPA as part of their reporting, according to colleagues. In 2003, George Vigo reported on the NPA for a BBC documentary titled “One Day of War,” according to journalist Orlando Guzman, a friend who did reporting for the documentary.
CPJ continued to investigate the circumstances surrounding the July murder of radio broadcaster Armando Pace, who was killed while riding home from Radyo Ukay DXDS in Digos City on the island of Mindanao. Digos City Police Director Caesar Cabuhat said that Pace’s killing could have been “a personal or work-related crime,” according to news reports. One suspect was charged.