Witness protection key in Philippine journalist murders

This week, CPJ’s Shawn W. Crispin examined the incredible risks and challenges confronting witnesses to journalist murders in the Philippines. Crispin’s report, “Under Oath, Under Threat,” featured Bob Flores, a man who has demonstrated extraordinary courage in identifying a gunman in the slaying of radio journalist Dennis Cuesta. Crispin and I had met Flores earlier this year in Manila, and we came away both inspired and determined to highlight the issue of witness intimidation in the Philippines.

We had had traveled to Manila to release CPJ’s 2009 Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where journalists are slain regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. The Philippines is sixth of this notorious list, with 24 unsolved journalist murders over the past decade.

It was just about a year ago that Flores watched Cuesta, a friend and colleague, die in his arms after being shot along a main highway in General Santos City. Cuesta was killed after reporting on potential police involvement in a local gambling operation. The gunman identified by Flores was a senior police official.

Ensuring the safety of witnesses such as Flores is crucial to the fight against impunity. It is not easy: Flores, like many witnesses before him, saw his life threatened and the safety of his family put at risk. He and his family have enrolled in the government’s Witness Protection Program–but, as Crispin describes in detail, the economic and social hardships they face are enormous. A recent analysis by Melanie Pinlac of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility notes: “Convincing witnesses to testify in court–especially in cases involving powerful personalities–is itself as problematic as finding them”

Yet the sacrifices of these witnesses can make all the difference in bringing justice. In the Philippines, two rare successful prosecutions were made possible by strong witness testimony. One of those cases involved columnist Marlene Garcia Esperat, who was murdered March 24, 2005, in her own home. Witness testimony led to the convictions of three assassins. Charges are pending against the alleged masterminds.

When CPJ launched its Global Campaign Against Impunity in November 2007, we sought to examine the specific circumstances that have created cultures of impunity. We’ve focused on the Philippines and Russia, countries with two of the worst records in convicting the killers of journalists. Working with local groups, such as the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, we are homing in on the causes of impunity and are identifying the solutions.

Most murders in the Philippines have taken place in the provinces, and many have involved public officials or other influential local people. These suspects often wield great influence among local law enforcement and judicial officials. In addition to supporting vulnerable witnesses, CPJ and its partners often seek the relocation of trials to venues where there are fewer opportunities for suspects to sway the proceedings or intimidate witnesses. Hiring private prosecutors to assist Department of Justice officials is another means to keep a case on the track to justice.

More convictions will create a safer climate for witnesses and, ultimately, for journalists. We need more people like Bob Flores–and we need to do all we can to support them.