Suspect in journalist’s murder reappears to face trial in the Philippines

New York, March 7, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the surrender of a suspect to police in the 2004 murder of Filipino broadcaster Herson Hinolan, but is concerned that the move comes shortly after the withdrawal of an important prosecution witness from the case.

Alfredo Arcenio, a former mayor of the town of Lezo, turned himself in to the Regional Trial Court in the nearby town of Kalibo, about 215 miles (345 kilometers) south of Manila on Wednesday. He immediately applied for bail, according to local news reports. Arcenio had been missing since a warrant for his arrest was issued in September 2006, according to the Web site of the Visayan Daily Star. Arcenio denies he was involved in the murder.

In February, Peter Melgar, an eyewitness to the murder, retracted his earlier statement identifying Arcenio as the assassin, according to the Philippines press freedom group Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. Police told the Daily Star that the case against Arcenio remained strong even without Melgar’s testimony.

“We are encouraged that Alfredo Arcenio has reappeared to face the charges against him,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We ask the Kalibo authorities to pursue the case aggressively and provide protection for witnesses so that they will remain committed to providing testimony.”

Hinolan, station manager for the local broadcaster Bombo Radio, also appeared on his program “Bombohanay Bigtime.” He was shot repeatedly by a lone gunman just outside Kalibo where he worked on November 13, 2004. He died two days later. An outspoken commentator, he used his program to repeatedly accuse Arcenio, Lezo’s mayor at the time, of ethical abuses involving cockfighting and gambling.

The prosecution charged Arcenio with the killing in 2005 after Melgar identified him as the gunman.

Such killings are not uncommon in the Philippines. Seventeen out of the 22 journalists murdered for their work from 2000-2005 were radio commentators like Hinolan, who operated in rural provinces, CPJ research shows. No convictions have been obtained in these killings. Finding witnesses willing to testify for the prosecution is a significant obstacle to justice in the cases, according to CPJ research.

And justice is slow to come in many of the cases in which journalists were killed. On February 8, CPJ called for action on warrants recently issued in the case of slain Filipino columnist Marlene Garcia-Esperat. The warrants have yet to result in the arrest of the two suspected masterminds, who are believed to be in hiding, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. 

CPJ is focusing its recently launched global campaign to combat impunity on the Philippines and Russia.