Attacks on the Press 2009: Philippines

Top Developments
• Maguindanao massacre underscores deep-seated climate of impunity.
• Local and international groups mobilize to offer aid, seek justice.

Key Statistic
29: Journalists slain in a politically motivated ambush, the single deadliest event ever recorded by CPJ.

In the deadliest event for the press ever recorded by CPJ, 29 journalists and two media support workers were ambushed and brutally slain on November 23 as they traveled in Maguindanao province with a convoy of people who intended to file gubernatorial candidacy papers for a local politician. In all, 57 people were killed in a shocking display of barbarism apparently motivated by political clan rivalries. The bodies were dumped in mass graves in a remote clearing in the town of Ampatuan.


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An authoritative report by four local press organizations—the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, MindaNews, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—said most of the victims had worked for Mindanao-based newspapers, with some employed by radio and television outlets.

The entourage was on its way to the provincial capitol of Shariff Aguak to file documents in support of local political leader Esmael Mangudadatu’s candidacy for provincial governor. Having been warned of a possible ambush, Mangudadatu did not travel with the group but instead sent female family members and supporters, and invited the press to go along, in the belief that women and independent witnesses would not be attacked, according to local and foreign media reports.

Police quickly identified Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of Datu Unsay in Maguindanao, as a prime suspect behind the killings. Ampatuan surrendered to authorities but proclaimed his innocence. Investigators said that about 100 heavily armed men loyal to Ampatuan abducted the group, took it to a more remote hillside, and then opened fire. Reuters quoted one of its photographers at the scene as saying that many bodies had both bullet and machete wounds. Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs, and one of the female victims was pregnant, Reuters and other sources reported.

The journalists were not directly targeted for their work, but were the victims of a long-running feud between two rival political clans competing for supremacy in the area. The massacre was not linked to Mindanao’s decades-old guerrilla battle between Muslim secessionists and Philippine army troops (many of whom are being trained by the U.S. military). As is the case in more than 85 percent of journalist killings worldwide, the victims in Maguindanao were local journalists pursuing a local story.

No single event has claimed as many journalists’ lives in the 18 years since CPJ began compiling detailed records. According to CPJ research, the deadliest prior event for the press came in Iraq on October 12, 2006, when 11 employees of Al-Shaabiya television were killed in an attack at the station’s Baghdad studios.

It was a massive political setback for the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which had political ties with the Ampatuan clan. A week after the killing, Arroyo, whose administration had become increasingly unpopular, announced that she would not seek re-election but would instead run for a congressional seat in her home district of Pampanga.

The response in the Philippines and globally was immediate. CPJ joined with local and international media organizations to travel to the area to investigate and raise funds to aid the families of the victims. The investigative and support work was expected to continue well into 2010.

The massacre underscored the deep-seated climate of impunity in the Philippines, an atmosphere in which politicians have felt free to use deadly violence to settle scores, win office, and further personal interests. To fight the phenomenon, CPJ worked with local partners for a second year in its Global Campaign Against Impunity. The campaign presses government officials for greater resolve, provides legal support and assistance to victim families, and pursues court tactics that improve the odds for arrests and convictions.

Although overshadowed by the brutality in Maguindanao, some positive developments were reported during the year, including a rare conviction and Supreme Court decisions to change trial venues to more neutral and secure settings. On April 29, a regional trial court in Malita, Davao Del Sur province, convicted the killer of radio journalist Armando Pace, who was gunned down in Digos City in 2006. The defendant was sentenced to 17 years in prison based on the testimony of a 16-year-old student who witnessed the crime.

Court proceedings against two suspects accused of ordering the 2005 killing of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat progressed in April when a local court denied a motion from the defendants, Department of Agriculture officials Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay, to dismiss murder charges. Three men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for carrying out the murder. During their trial, the two agriculture officials were identified as the masterminds behind the crime.

In August, the Supreme Court granted a change of venue in the case from Tacarong City to Manila. The request had been filed by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition of six media groups and a CPJ partner in the Global Campaign Against Impunity. The coalition sought the venue change due to concerns about the safety of witnesses and prosecutors, and possible political interference in the local court.

Montaner and Sabay evaded warrants for their arrest throughout the year, raising criticism among relatives and press freedom advocates that police were not vigorously pursuing the suspects. Police responded to concerns in this and other cases by announcing the creation of 21 dedicated “tracker teams” to hunt down suspects and post more than 6,000 wanted posters, replete with rewards. 

But attacks on the press remained common, continuing an exceptional cycle of violence and impunity. Two radio commentators, Ernie Rollin and Crispin Perez, were murdered for their reporting, and newspaper reporter Jojo Trajano was killed while covering a police raid on an organized crime group that ended in a gun battle.

Rollin, a morning news anchor at DXSY Radio, was killed on February 23 while waiting for a bus in Oroquieta City, capital of Misamis Occidental province in the northern part of Mindanao island. A masked assailant shot Rollin in the head after firing an initial hail of bullets from the back of a motorcycle, according to a witness quoted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a local press freedom group. Murder charges were filed in June against a former member of the communist New People’s Army.   

An assailant fatally shot Perez, a commentator at DWDO Radio and a practicing lawyer, on June 9 in San Jose City in the central province of Occidental Mindoro. According to local news reports, the assailant pretended to solicit Perez’s legal advice in front of his home before drawing a pistol and twice shooting the reporter. The killer fled on a motorcycle. Police arrested a suspect in July.

At least 65 Philippine journalists have been murdered in direct relation to their work since 1992, with convictions obtained in just five cases, according to CPJ research. A handful of media murder cases moved tentatively through the justice system in 2009, slowed by both the reluctance of local judges to proceed with cases involving influential officials and the inability or unwillingness of
local police to apprehend suspects. That slow progress was on display in the case of murdered journalist Dennis Cuesta, who was shot in August 2008 in General Santos City on Mindanao island.

A witness identified Police Chief Inspector Redempto “Boy” Acharon, cousin of the city’s mayor, as one of Cuesta’s assassins. Acharon’s lawyer successfully petitioned in February to have the case reassigned from one local court to another—which promptly withdrew a previously issued arrest warrant. The warrant was reissued in May, but the suspect remained free in late year. Police told CPJ they were looking for Acharon; local journalists said the suspect could be seen in public restaurants and at his residence in the city. The witness was forced into a government protection program after receiving threats.

CPJ’s Shawn Crispin, reporting from General Santos City, wrote about the case in a special report in August: “The circumstances surrounding Cuesta’s murder conform to a disturbing pattern in this country: A journalist is shot and killed; local police manipulate the evidence to protect influential people accused in the crime; potential witnesses are intimidated, bought off, or killed so that they never appear in court; the defense employs stalling tactics to break the will of remaining witnesses; the case goes unsolved and the culture of impunity is reinforced.”

In the report, “Under Oath, Under Threat,” Crispin highlighted the crucial role that witness protection programs and trial venue changes can play in winning convictions in journalist murders. In July, the Supreme Court moved the Cuesta case from General Santos City to the national capital. The eyewitness, Bob Flores, who was moved into a safe house in August 2008 along with his wife and three young children, told CPJ that he is determined to testify. “I will not quit,” he said, “no matter how long it takes.”

Two journalists narrowly survived assassination attempts during the year. On March 5, gunmen critically wounded reporter Nilo Labares outside his home in the Macasandig township of Cagayan de Oro City on the island of Mindanao. Laberes, who underwent emergency surgery to remove a kidney, later identified his assailants as having connections to an illegal gambling operation he had frequently criticized during his radio program. The accused gunman was freed on bail, while three other suspects were identified but not arrested, according to news reports.

On May 20, gunmen critically wounded radio broadcaster Harrison Manalac while he was riding his motorcycle home from DXXE Radio in Buug town, Zamboanga Sibugay province, according to news reports. Police Chief Federico Castro told local journalists that police were seeking a motive for the attack, noting that Manalac had produced several provocative commentaries on political and community issues, according to a report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Two journalists were slain under unclear circumstances; CPJ is continuing to investigate those cases. Badrodin Abbas, a frequent contributor at DXCM-Radyo Ukay, was shot in the head and killed on January 21 by two assailants while driving a minivan in Cotabato City on the southern island of Mindanao. On July 27, two unidentified men shot and killed Godofredo Linao outside the offices of Radyo Natin, a station where he worked as a political commentator in Surigao del Sol province.