Philippine editor Vitug receives series of death threats

New York, March 23, 2010—The Philippine government must vigorously pursue its investigation into a series of death threats received by Marites Dañguilan Vitug, editor-in-chief of the online news outlet Newsbreak, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Vitug, a veteran editor and reporter based in Manila, told CPJ that she received four threatening, anonymous text messages on her mobile phone between Monday and today. The first message, received Monday afternoon in Filipino, said: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the sword kills faster than the word.”  

A second message received on Monday said: “Now I know why many journalists are killed. It’s because they were like you. Ampatuan did have a reason to kill those journalists. You should have been with them. Who knows, you might be next.”

The anonymous sender was referring to last year’s election-related massacre in Maguindanao in which 30 journalists and two media workers were among 57 people killed. A local mayor, Andal Amputuan Jr., is being held as the main suspect in the crime.

Vitug told CPJ that she received a third message from the same phone number on Monday evening that made a veiled threat against her family members. A fourth message was sent on Tuesday morning that referred to her appearance on a local television news program the previous evening on which she publicized the anonymous threats.

“The Philippine justice department has a terrible record of protecting journalists and of prosecuting those who commit violence against them,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “The judiciary can show journalists that it is fully committed to protecting their rights by pursuing a full and vigorous investigation into these despicable threats.”

Police are investigating the origin of the text messages, but as of late today had not identified a suspect, Vitug said. Newsbreak said it attempted to reach the sender of the threats, but its calls to the originating number were not answered.

In a statement posted on Newsbreak’s Web site, Vitug said the threats began after the release last week of the book, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, which included an article she published in December 2009 on broadcaster ABS-CBN’s Web site. (Newsbreak provides content for the ABS-CBN site.) The article alleged that Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. was involved in organizing his son’s candidacy for a congressional seat in Marinduque province. The article called Velasco a “key figure in his son’s uphill battle,” although Velasco denied such involvement, the ABS-CBN site reported. Velasco filed a libel suit in mid-March over the coverage. 

In her statement about the threats, Vitug said: “The sender wants to intimidate me or warn me. I want to make this public because this is the best protection.” Her statement was widely covered in the Philippine press.

Velasco did not publicly respond to the statement. CPJ’s calls and e-mails to his office late today were not immediately returned.