Police give conflicting statements in Philippine killing

New York, August 3, 2010—Conflicting public statements by the police in Bicol province in the Philippines have complicated the investigation into the death of part-time radio reporter Miguel Belen, who was shot on July 9, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police should publicly clarify their findings, CPJ said.

Belen died on July 31 in a hospital from seven .45 caliber bullet wounds he sustained when he was shot by two men on a motorcycle. He was a general assignment news reporter.

Conflicting police comments to the local press have raised concerns about the investigation into the killing. Early local media reports said two unidentified people on a motorcycle shot Belen while he was on his way home from radio station DWEB in Iriga City, in Bicol, in the southern part of the main island of Luzon.

In his first State of the Nation Address on July 26, President Benigno Aquino said that Belen’s attackers had been identified. Local media reported that police said they have filed charges against Eric Vargas, the suspected driver of the getaway motorcycle used by the gunman. Vargas remains at large.

Other media quoted Senior Superintendent Jonathan Ablang, the acting head of the local police department, as having identified a woman, who he did not name, as the shooter. He implied that she was a member of the New Peoples’ Army, a decades-old communist-inspired insurgent group that has long been active in the area. According to local media reports, Ablang said there was a “relationship” between her and Belen, but would give no specific details. Investigator Eliciar Bron of the regional command of the Philippine National Police identified the woman as Gina Bagacina. Local police have organized a “Task Force Belen” and offered a 75,000 peso (US$1,650) reward for help in the case.

“The motive behind the killing of Miguel Belen remains unclear, and conflicting statements from the police have only muddied this case almost one month after it happened,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We call on the national police to clarify its investigation into this murder and clearly and publicly disclose its progress.”

CPJ wrote a letter on June 9 calling on President-elect Benigno Aquino to address the country’s high rate of journalist murders, and thoroughly investigate the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre, a single incident in which 32 journalists and media workers were killed. The Philippines placed third on CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index, a list of countries which consistently fail to address journalist killings, after Iraq and Somalia. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The date Belen died has been corrected.