Marquez (AP)
Marquez (AP)

Philippine high court spokesman: Death threats ‘funny’

Midas Marquez, spokesman for the Philippine Supreme Court, has told local reporters that he considers death threats sent anonymously by text message to journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug to be “funny” and “ridiculous.” Marquez was asked to comment in his official role because the threats began shortly after the release of Vitug’s new book, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, which critiques the inner workings of the high court.

“Let’s not make this a big issue,” Marquez told reporters in comments that can be found in numerous news accounts, including here, here, and here. He has not responded to several CPJ e-mails and phone calls requesting direct comment. But in speaking with local reporters, Marquez insinuated that the threats were fabricated to generate publicity for Vitug’s new book.

His statements, which have sparked criticism in the local media, highlight the deep-seated sense of denial among many Philippine officials when it comes to the country’s well-documented record of deadly violence against the press and the government’s inability or unwillingness to combat the problem. At least 61 journalist murders have gone unpunished in the Philippines since 1992, according to CPJ research, one of the worst law-enforcement records in the world. That includes the brutal murders of the 30 journalists and two media workers in the November 2009 massacre in Maguindanao province.

Marquez’s remarks also appear to undermine the Supreme Court’s stated commitment to combating impunity. When Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno presided over the February 2008 launch of CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity Campaign, he said in his address that the court was committed to achieving justice in the high number of unsolved journalist murders. Marquez served as Puno’s chief of staff until his promotion in January to oversee the administration of all lower courts across the country; he has retained his role as Supreme Court spokesman.

Vitug, editor-in-chief of the online news provider Newsbreak, is a respected veteran of the Manila press corp. She told CPJ that while she is not accusing any court members of masterminding the threats, it’s a fact that the threats began about the time Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. filed a libel suit against her. The lawsuit challenges a 2009 article, which is included in Vitug’s new book, alleging that Velasco played a role in organizing his son’s candidacy for a congressional seat.

Despite local and international attention to her case, Vitug continues to come under threat, including an apparent stalking incident on March 24. She told CPJ that the driver of a suspicious car parked in front of her Newsbreak offices could be seen text-messaging when she arrived at work. When approached by one of Vitug’s staff members, the driver refused to say for whom he was waiting and sped away when pressed further about his identity.

Local police have attempted to trace and locate the phone number used to send the text message threats, but their investigations, including a false lead that led them to a local gravel and sand trading company, have so far come up dry, according to Vitug. In the meantime, police have advised her to change daily her work and travel routines, and to avoid when possible public places.