Impunity in the Philippines: No exaggeration

When we launched CPJ’s new Impunity Index today in Manila, the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo reacted viscerally. Just after we released the report, which prominently features the Philippines, Presidential Press Secretary Cerge Remonde sent out a statement to journalists by text message describing the report as “a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Getting Away with Murder,” CPJ’s 2009 Global Impunity Index, is a database survey that calculates the number of unsolved killings over a 10-year period as a percentage of population and ranks them. (For a detailed explanation of our methodology, see the full report). We presented the findings of the report to an audience of 70 at a local media haunt, Annabel’s restaurant.

Co-hosted by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, CPJ’s partner in the impunity campaign, the event also featured a briefing from attorney Prima Q Jesusa B. Quinsayas on the impunity campaign’s efforts to bring perpetrators in eight cases to justice. Attorney Nena Santos gave an update on the case of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, who four years ago tomorrow was gunned down in front of her family. Journalists from major Philippine newspapers such as the Inquirer and the Philippine Star as well as television crews from GMA channel seven attended as did representatives from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the National Union of Philippine Journalists, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Philippines Press Institute.

The data-based report belies the claim of exaggeration. In the period the index covers, January 1, 1999, through December 31, 2008, the Philippines has had 24 murders of journalists in connection with their work in which no suspects have been convicted. The Philippines ranks sixth out of 14 countries on the list. What is striking is that Philippines is one of the only countries in the top half of this list, which leads with Iraq, that is a stable, peacetime democracy. Interviews and consultations we have held since arriving in Manila have reinforced our concern for the situation.

In the days preceding the launch we met with a witness to one journalist’s fatal shooting, and another journalist who barely survived an assassination attempt and now fears for his safety. Both attacks took place in the last year. Briefings from private and public prosecutors raised concerns that even when arrests warrants are issued, suspects can draw on a range of legal maneuvering to delay prosecution and apprehension, eroding the resolve and ability of witnesses–some of whom are in poor health or in hiding–to testify. Discussions with our partner organizations here confirmed the environment has not improved.

Several weeks before our arrival, President Arroyo met with journalists and committed to launching tracker teams for the 20 suspects in media killings still at large. These include Estrella Sabay and Osmena Montaner, the suspected masterminds in murder of Garcia-Esperat, who have had warrants out for their arrests since October 2008. Today Task Force USIG, a unit of the Philippines National Police dedicated to investigating media and political murders, confirmed that these tracker teams are now operational. Financial resources for witness protection have been committed and at least 20 witnesses and their families have been put under witness protection.

Whether these are promises or promising steps, it is clear the administration recognizes the need to respond to this grave issue. If upheld, the Philippines may well start to work its way off our index the only way it can, by moving from inaction to prosecuting journalist’s murders.

(Reporting from Manila)