Supreme Court moves trial in Philippine attack

New York, September 23, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists applauds a Philippine Supreme Court decision to grant a change of venue in the trial of a defendant in the attempted murder of radio journalist Nilo Labares, who was shot and injured in Cagayan de Oro City in March. The transfer is the third venue change recently approved by the Supreme Court in a media attack.

The defendant, accused gunman Bernardo Aguilar, is free on bail, according to Philippine media reports. Three other suspects have yet to be arrested. No mastermind has been named in the attack on Labares, who had exposed local gambling operations and had alleged police complicity in the activities.

The Manila-based press freedom group Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) received the court’s ruling on the venue change this week. The ruling was dated August 10. The change of venue had been sought by Labares and 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 move the trial from Cagayan de Oro to a court in Makati City, in metropolitan Manila. CPJ research shows that provincial courts are often prone to undue political influence in media cases, particularly when the cases allegedly involve wayward government or police officials.

The Supreme Court approved Labares’ petition for a venue change after the Office of the Court Administration (OCA) found that “the perceived fear for the lives and security of the witnesses is actual and real and that the grounds cited by the petitioner appear to be well-founded and the violence feared is highly possible,” according to CMFR.

The decision recognizes the vulnerability of Labares, who identified one of the gunmen as a protector of the local gambling racket. Labares is now in the Department of Justice-administered Witness Protection Program, and is living in a safe house in Manila.

Labares was initially placed in a local safe house, which proved not to be safe at all. Local police soon raided the supposed sanctuary and accused Labares of illegal gambling. Despite the raid, no actual charges were produced against the Labares.

“As events since the attack on Nilo Labares demonstrate, a change of venue is crucial for achieving justice in his case,” said Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “This and other recent Supreme Court rulings allowing for trial transfers are crucial steps towards breaking the cycle of impunity in attacks on journalists.”

Labares, a reporter at DXCC Radio Mindanao Network, was shot on March 5 near his home by two gunmen who escaped on a motorcycle. Two accomplices were said to have served as lookouts. Laberes was rushed to a hospital and required emergency surgery to remove a kidney damaged in the attack. He had received earlier, cell phone threats connected to his reporting on illegal gambling.

The Labares ruling follows two other Supreme Court decisions to change trial venues. On August 26, the court moved the trial location for two suspects charged with ordering the March 2005 murder of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-EsperatIn July, the trial of three suspects in the killing of Dennis Cuesta in August 2008 was moved to Makati from General Santos City in Mindanao, where the murder occurred.