Attacks on the Press in 2008: Philippines

Four years after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo moved to create a police task force dedicated to investigating journalist murders, CPJ research showed the impunity rate in these cases remained about 90 percent, one of the highest in the world. A CPJ study into slain journalists worldwide found that the absence of justice tended to promote a higher incidence of murder, including in the Philippines.

To combat that trend, CPJ partnered with local press organizations in Manila to launch its Global Campaign Against Impunity, aimed at raising awareness about the high number of unsolved journalist killings, particularly in the Philippines and Russia. In an encouraging sign of judicial support, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno delivered the keynote address at a February 27 conference in Manila in conjunction with the campaign.  “Unless and until we do something to submerge this pernicious culture, these attacks will continue to litter our collective consciousness with the corpses of people who are bearers of truth,” he said.

At least 34 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work since 1992, but convictions have been obtained in just three cases, CPJ research showed. The shooting deaths of Dennis Cuesta and Martin Roxas in 2008 marked a deadly resurgence in violence against journalists, breaking a one-year lull in fatal attacks. CPJ investigations and local press freedom groups determined that both reporters’ deaths were most likely related to their work.

Cuesta, a program director for DXMD in General Santos City, was shot several times on a public street by motorcycle-riding assassins who fled. Shot on August 4, Cuesta died five days later in a local hospital. He had received death threats related to his on-air commentaries about a high-profile land dispute, prompting him to apply for a personal firearm and to request police protection.

Two assailants shot Roxas, a program director for DYVR on Panay Island, on August 7 as the journalist was riding a motorcycle home from his midday radio program. He died later at a local hospital from a gunshot wound to his spine. Roxas had reported on a dispute between two local politicians and had alleged misappropriation of city funds, according to news reports. He had been threatened previously over his reporting and had told colleagues that he had been assaulted by unidentified men a week before the shooting, according to the same reports.

Four other journalists were slain in unclear circumstances in 2008. On April 7, Benefredo Acabal, the 34-year-old reporter, publisher, and columnist for The Filipino Newsmen newspaper in Cavite province, was killed when he was shot several times at close range by an unidentified gunman who fled on a motorcycle.

Journalist Robert Sison was killed on July 1 when two gunmen passing on a motorcycle opened fire on his car in the town of Sariaya, 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of the capital city, Manila. Sison, 60, was a reporter with the newsweekly Regional Bulletin, which frequently published articles that were critical of local officials. His daughter, Liwayway, a reporter for the same publication, was shot in the arm during the attack.

Two journalists who worked for local affiliates of Radyo Natin were gunned down in late year.  A motorcycle-riding gunman shot commentator Arecio Padrigao in Misamis Oriental province in mid-November. Just two weeks later, assailants ambushed commentator Leo Mila outside his office in Northern Samar province. CPJ was investigating the circumstances of both slayings.

Court proceedings for two defendants accused of ordering the 2005 slaying of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat illustrated some of the difficulties in prosecuting journalist murders. Garcia-Esperat was slain in front of her two children in her home in Tacurong, a small city on the island of Mindanao. In October 2006, three men described by authorities as the assassins were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a court in Cebu in central Philippines, where the case had been moved to ensure a fair trial and to protect witnesses. A former military intelligence officer testified that he had hired the three men at the behest of local agriculture officials Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay, whom Garcia-Esperat had accused of misusing public money.

Throughout the three-year investigation, prosecutors have sought to bring charges against the two agriculture officials, first in Tacurong and later in Cebu. In Tacurong, where the two officials wielded considerable political sway, judges resisted efforts to move forward with the prosecution. In Cebu, prosecutors encountered jurisdictional problems in bringing charges against Montaner and Sabay.

In October 2008, after a series of appeals, the prosecution filed new murder charges in Tacurong against the two agriculture officials, essentially bringing the case back to step one. Authorities issued arrest warrants for Montaner and Sabay that month, but the two immediately filed motions to quash the charges. The case was pending in late year.

CPJ research has shown local courts to be ineffective in trying journalist murders. Witnesses have been threatened, attacked, and killed while cases were being tried in local courts. Local judges have been reluctant to proceed with cases involving influential public figures.

Despite having one of the freest media climates in Asia, the Philippines continued to carry criminal defamation laws on its books. Three cases reflected the ongoing use of those statutes. Freelance radio commentator Julito Ucab was arrested on January 22 in Cagayan de Oro on the southern island of Mindanao after failing to attend court hearings to defend himself against a 2004 libel charge. The charge stemmed from an interview with a woman who accused a government employee of sexual assault. Ucab, a freelancer at the time, aired the interview on a program he hosted for DXBC radio in Butuan City.

On September 4, police arrested veteran columnist and Malaya newspaper publisher Amado “Jake” Macasaet on a libel complaint filed nine years earlier by Casimiro Ynares, a former governor of Rizal province, and another former administration official. Macasaet had written about Ynares in a series of stories about cockfighting rivalries, local news reports said. Two Malaya editors, Enrique Romualdez and Joy De Los Reyes, were also charged. All three were released on bail.

Macasaet’s lawyer told local television station ABS-CBN News that his client thought the charges had been dropped in 1999 due to lack of evidence. The prosecution was resurrected after Macasaet wrote in 2007 about bribery allegations involving Supreme Court Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, the sister of the former governor.

A well-known critic of the Arroyo administration, Macasaet had been arrested along with seven Malaya associates in 2006 on a libel complaint filed by Jose Miguel Arroyo, the president’s husband. The complaint related to a Malaya article alleging that Arroyo had been involved in attempted vote-rigging during the 2004 presidential election, which his wife won amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Arroyo, who strongly denied the vote-rigging charges, later withdrew the complaint against Macasaet along with dozens of others he had filed against journalists after the election. Journalists had moved assertively to file countersuits against Arroyo.

Radio journalist Alexander Adonis languished in the Davao Penal Colony in Davao del Norte province in Mindanao in late year even though the Board of Pardon and Paroles issued an order in February for his release. The penal colony’s warden, Benjo Tesoro, refused to free Adonis on grounds that another libel charge was pending in court. Adonis had been convicted on a defamation complaint filed by Prospero Nograles, a former Davao congressional representative and current House speaker. In on-air comments, Adonis accused the official of having an extramarital affair. Nograles said the comments were untrue.

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