Philippine groups move quickly to investigate massacre

Four groups in the Philippines released what appears to be the most

authoritative account 

on the murder of 57 people on November 23 in Ampatuan, in Maguindanao province, in the Philippines’ southernmost main island, Mindanao. The report puts the death toll for journalists at 30, with a few others classified as media workers—drivers and other support staff. Some bodies are still unidentified. The nine-person investigative team spent November 25 to 30 in the nearest large city, General Santos City, and traveled to the site of the massacre in Ampatuan and to nearby towns interviewing relatives of those killed.

The organizations—Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, MindaNews, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—felt they had to act quickly because the Philippines has a very poor record of carrying out investigations and bringing prosecutions in the deaths of journalists. CPJ ranks the country the sixth worst in terms of impunity for those who kill journalists. They were right to move quickly. When the investigative team went to Ampatuan they were accompanied by a forensics expert. They were horrified by the destruction of evidence by the police and army teams who were using excavators to search for and retrieve the victims’ bodies. The scene of the crime—actually there were a few killing areas—was ruined in a way that will make it very difficult if not impossible to reconstruct what happened.

The BBC reported today that 19 people being investigated by the National Bureau of Investigation for their involvement in the massacre have been placed on a security watch list. That means they can’t leave the country, but they haven’t been arrested. The BBC said 12 of the 19 are relatives of Andal Ampatuan Jr.—the only person in custody. Ampatuan is charged with multiple counts of murder, which he denies. He has applied for release on bail. He belongs to the powerful Ampatuan political clan. He is the son of Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., and brother of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan.

Tomorrow, representatives from about 10 international media support groups will start assembling in General Santos City, to support their Philippines colleagues. The idea is to carry their investigation forward and start assessing the needs of the victims’ families. But it is also to show solidarity with Philippine reporters in the entire nation. With the facts gathered, they will then focus on high-level advocacy and giving as much support as possible to the local media community, culminating in Global Day of Action on December 9, preceding International Human Rights Day.

Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Asia regional representative will be part of that team. Shawn has a great track record of reporting out of the Philippines—indeed, out of many places in Southeast Asia—for CPJ. But the group hasn’t decided whether or not to make the trip back to Ampatuan. The country is tense in the lead-up to the May 2010 elections, and several parts of Mindanao have come under a state of emergency that was declared after the November 23 killings.

As we were waiting for confirmation of the death toll to come in, we searched our database for any similar instances. By far, the killings in Maguindanao have proven to be the worst we have on record, and most likely the worst in the history of journalism.

That sort of record is hard to put into perspective. But when considering the facts, and they are still emerging, keep a few points in mind. As far as we can tell, to date, the journalists killed in Ampatuan were not directly targeted for their work, but were the victims of a long-running political feud between two rival political clans competing for supremacy in the area. Neither is the massacre linked to Mindanao’s decades-old guerilla battle between Muslim secessionists and the Philippine army. But, as is typical of more than 85 percent of the journalists who are killed around the world, they were local reporters, pursuing a local story.

In the Philippines, the trend of murdering local reporters has gotten worse under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration, despite efforts to bring it under control. Special prosecutorial units have been put together during her administration: The national police have established Task Force USIG to investigate media killings, and the federal government’s Task Force 211 investigates all extrajudicial killings. Earlier this year, several longstanding cases of murdered journalists had their venues moved to Manila so that they could proceed without undue local interference and intimidation of witnesses.

But these most recent killings are a massive political setback to the government, which had political ties with the Ampatuan clan. Arroyo, whose administration had become increasingly unpopular over the years, announced that she would not seek presidential re-election as she had reportedly been considering—there would have been an almost certain constitutional challenge to her candidacy—but would instead run for a congressional seat in her home district of Pampanga, a decision that might have been made well before November 23. Despite all of the government’s denouncements of these killings and the past murders of journalists, and the promise for a full investigation, there is reason to be skeptical that Arroyo’s government will be able to fully follow through.

Even before this massacre, 38 journalists were killed for their work in the Philippines since 1992. This in a country with a relatively stable democracy and a vibrant, open, though sometimes partisan news media. When the deaths from Ampatuan are added to our database, the Philippines will be the second-most deadly country in the world for journalists, just behind Iraq.

Read a pdf of the investigative report here.