CPJ welcomes Supreme Court ruling in the Philippines

New York, September 17, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes a Supreme Court ruling in the Philippines granting a change of trial venue in the case against two suspects charged with ordering the March 2005 murder of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat

The Supreme Court handed down the ruling on August 26 and Manila-based press freedom group Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility received a copy of the order this week. The change of venue request in the trial of Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay was filed in February by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), a coalition of six media groups and a CPJ partner in the Global Campaign Against Impunity.

The ruling will shift the trial from Tacurong City Regional Trial Court to Makati City, within the capital of Manila. CPJ research shows that provincial courts are often prone to political influence in media murder cases that allegedly involve government officials. Montañer and Sabay are both senior Department of Agriculture officials who have managed to evade warrants issued for their arrests in October 2008. 

The court denied a motion filed by the two suspects through their lawyers in March to quash the case on the grounds that the Tacurong court had previously dismissed the charges without a trial in 2005. Three gunmen were sentenced in 2006 to 30 years in prison each for their role in the crime. Former intelligence agent Rowie Barua testified during those trials that he had hired the assassins at the behest of Montañer and Sabay, leading to the new charges filed against them as the masterminds behind the crime.

“The change of trial venue to a neutral and secure setting is a significant first step toward achieving full justice in this landmark case,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We commend the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case and urge that the court make similar rulings in the various other changes of venue petitions in killed journalist cases still pending. We also call on police to step up efforts to apprehend Sabay and Montañer.”

In July, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of another change of venue in the murder trial of radio journalist Dennis Cuesta, who was murdered in August 2008. The order transferred the case from General Santos City, where the shooting occurred on the southernmost main island of the Philippines, to the Makati City court, considered a more secure setting for witnesses and prosecutors. A senior police official, Redempto Acharon, who is related to General Santos City’s mayor, is a suspect in the crime. General Santos City Police Director Marcelo Pintac told CPJ in July that his officials could not locate the Acharon to serve a warrant that had been issued for his arrest in April.

There are a number of similar petitions requesting a change of trial venues for security reasons in media killings now pending in the Supreme Court.