Several journalists reported among dead in Philippines

New York, November 23, 2009—Several journalists covering relatives and supporters of a local politician who was about to file his gubernatorial candidacy on the Philippines island of Mindanao today were believed to be among those killed by a gang of armed men in Maguindanao province, according to international news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists joined today with Philippine journalists and press organizations around the world in condemning the attack, and called for a full investigation into the details of the slaughter and prosecution of those responsible.

News reports said at least 21 people were killed after being abducted, including journalists, lawyers, and relatives of the politician. Details of the attack and the number of people killed and injured were still emerging. Another 22 people were unaccounted for, The New York Times reported, citing military officials.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo condemned the attack in a statement and said no effort would be spared to find those responsible. “Civilized society has no place for this kind of violence,” she said.

“Covering the news has always been dangerous in the Philippines, but the wanton killing of so many people makes this an assault on the very fabric of the country’s democracy,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. We welcome President Macapagal-Arroyo’s promise to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of this terrible violence.”

In its statement, the Philippines’ National Union of Journalists said, “This incident not only erases all doubts about the Philippines being the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, outside of Iraq, it could very well place the country on the map as a candidate for a failed democracy.” 

As of this evening, Col. Romeo Brawner, a spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said authorities in the town were still identifying the dead. They were using identification cards and other documents they had found at the scene near the town of Ampatuan. The group was at first thought to have been kidnapped. Their deaths were discovered later in the day, apparently at several different sites, according to local and international media reports. “We launched rescue operations at 11:30 this morning,” Branwer said in an interview with local broadcaster ABS-CBN. “Unfortunately, it turned out to be a recovery operation.”

Armed men seized a convoy of political allies of a local vice mayor, Ismael Mangudadatu, at gunpoint around 10:30 a.m, according to news reports. Genalyn Mangudadatu, the vice mayor’s wife, was in the convoy, heading to file gubernatorial candidacy papers for her husband for the nationwide May 2010 elections. Ismael Mangudadatu was not in the group.

The police have not identified the attackers. Philippine press reports say Mangudadatu was reportedly planning to challenge local political leader Datu Andal Ampatuan for the provincial governor’s office.

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, with more than 38 killed for their work since 1992, and 27 others in which the motive was not clear. Very few cases have been brought to trial, giving the country one of the worst records of impunity in the cases of killed journalists in the world.