• Flawed procedures, witness intimidation, bribes mar Maguindanao prosecution.
• Aquino pledges reform, but two more journalists are murdered for their work.
3rd: Ranking on CPJ’s Impunity Index, reflecting one of the world’s worst records in solving press murders.
Trial proceedings began in September for the first 19 defendants in the 2009 massacre in Maguindanao province, raising hopes that impunity’s grip on the Philippines would finally be loosened. But in a special report issued in November, CPJ uncovered efforts to subvert the judicial process, including bribe offers to victims’ families, and the use of intimidation and deadly violence against witnesses. CPJ’s investigation also revealed deeply flawed forensic work and widespread lack of cooperation among law enforcement officials, both of which could hinder the prosecution.
THE PRESS: 2010
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Among the first defendants on trial was Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of the town that bears his name and where the massacre took place. Authorities identified Ampatuan as the lead suspect in the atrocity, allegedly orchestrating police and paramilitary forces in the brazen November 2009 attack against supporters of a rival politician. Journalists were accompanying the politician’s convoy as it was on its way to file gubernatorial candidacy papers. The attack–the deadliest event for the press ever recorded by CPJ–claimed 57 lives, including those of 32 journalists and media support workers.
Another 47 suspects were in custody but had not gone to trial as of late year. A total of 130 other suspects, including police officials and members of the Ampatuans’ 3,000-strong militia, were still at large in late year. Six members of the politically influential Ampatuan clan were among those in custody.
The election in May of President Benigno Aquino offered hope for a significant change in approach from that taken by his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The Arroyo administration had created a series of police task forces to address media killings, but in the eyes of press advocates, it never demonstrated the political will to bring journalists’ killers to justice. In 2010, the Philippines ranked third on CPJ’s Impunity Index, a list of countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. Only war-afflicted Iraq and Somalia had worse records.
The Arroyo administration maintained close political ties to the Ampatuans, who helped secure votes in Maguindanao during the 2004 general elections. Arroyo’s political failures were never more evident than in April when the outgoing justice secretary, Alberto Agra, sought to free two Ampatuan clan members who had been charged in the massacre on conspiracy allegations. His abrupt order to release Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan–governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and vice governor of Maguindanao, respectively–drew a public rebuke from rank-and-file prosecutors who said in a statement: “We are deeply concerned that the resolution will all the more convince a long skeptical public that our criminal justice system is impotent when the accused are politically influential.” Facing a mutiny in his own ranks, Agra reversed the order three weeks later, and the men remained in custody.
The Aquino administration’s interest in changing the climate of impunity was on display on August 24, when a CPJ delegation led by board member Sheila Coronel met for 90 minutes with senior justice officials at the presidential residence, Malacañang Palace. Richard Fadullon, the government’s lead attorney in the Maguindanao case, and Geronimo Sy, the assistant secretary of justice, affirmed the government’s commitment while noting that it will be a long process. Many analysts expect the Maguindanao prosecution to stretch out over many years. Aquino offered his own pledge in a brief meeting with CPJ on September 26. He stated his government’s intention not only to pursue the killers in the Maguindanao case, but to address the overall climate of impunity. Administration officials say they have an enormous task, given entrenched dysfunction in the judicial system.
Throughout 2010, the Maguindanao defense team filed a series of motions–including ones to remove both judge and prosecutors–that had the effect of delaying the proceedings. Press advocates have long complained that defense attorneys exploit lenient court rules to drag out proceedings in the hopes of breaking the will of the prosecution. CPJ research shows the tactic has been effective in a number of cases.
As the Maguindanao case headed to trial, people claiming to represent the Ampatuan clan made financial offers to victims’ family members in exchange for dropping their support for the prosecution. Luisa Subang, widow of Francisco “Ian” Subang, a slain reporter with Mindanao Focus, a community newspaper, told CPJ she was offered 500,000 pesos (US$11,300). Nancy Dela Cruz, the mother of the slain reporter Gina Dela Cruz, told CPJ that she received a 3 million peso (US$68,000) offer in exchange for her signature on a blank piece of paper. Neither Subang nor Dela Cruz accepted the bribes, they told CPJ. While state prosecutors would pursue the Maguindanao killings as crimes against the Philippine people, they fear that if enough families accepted financial offers, it would weaken the solidarity of the prosecution, as well as the resolve of witnesses to testify.
Prosecution witnesses were also targeted. Ampatuan Vice Mayor Rasul Sangki testified during bail proceedings in January that he witnessed Andal Ampatuan Jr. shoot the first massacre victim with a high-powered rifle. The day after the testimony, Sangki’s house came under mortar attack from unknown assailants, though he suffered only minor injuries. Sangki’s personal lawyer, Richard Petisme, was shot in the neck on July 2 by unknown assailants while leaving his office in Cotabato City in Mindanao.
Another potential witness, Suwaib Upham, known publicly as Jesse, was killed in June under unclear circumstances. A reputed member of the Ampatuans’ militia who turned prosecution witness in the case, Upham had given several press interviews detailing his role as one of the gunmen in the killings. He was in the process of enrolling in the Justice Department’s witness protection program at the time of his murder. The government was dealt another blow in November when Leo Dacera, one of the lead prosecutors, died of an apparent heart attack.
Even with all the focus on the Maguindanao trial, journalists continued to come under fire. At least two journalists were killed in direct relation to their work during the year, while a third was slain under unclear circumstances, according to CPJ research.
On June 14, Desidario Camangyan, a reporter for Sunrise FM in Manay, Davao Oriental province, was shot from behind at close range while hosting an amateur singing contest, according to local and international news reports. He died at the scene, in front of an audience that included his wife and 6-year-old son. Police said the gunman escaped on foot. Sunrise manager, Bobong Alcantara, told local media that Camangyan’s reports on illegal logging may have motivated the attack.
Joselito Agustin, a reporter for DZJC radio, died on June 16, a day after two gunmen on motorcycles shot him near Baccara town in northern Philippines. Agustin, shot in late evening while returning from work, had received text-message death threats in the weeks before his murder, colleague Nick Malasig told The Associated Press.
DWEB radio reporter Miguel Belen died on July 31, three weeks after he was shot multiple times by two motorcycle-riding assailants in Bicol province in central Philippines. Two suspects were arrested, but police did not immediately disclose a motive. One suspect was identified as being a member of the New People’s Army, a decades-old communist-inspired insurgent group. CPJ was investigating the circumstances to determine whether the murder was work-related.
CPJ research shows the impunity crisis has been exacerbated by the unwillingness of some Philippine officials to acknowledge the problem. That failure was on display in March when Midas Marquez, a spokesman for the Philippine Supreme Court, told local reporters that he considered death threats made against journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug to be “funny” and “ridiculous.” The threats began shortly after the release of Vitug’s book, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, which critiqued the inner workings of the high court. In a statement, CPJ condemned Marquez’s remarks.
Prosecutors did make an important advance in one press-related murder. In January, a Cebu City court sentenced Muhammad Maulana to life in prison in the 2005 murder of Edgar Amoro. Amoro was a witness to the 2002 killing of Pagadian City journalist Edgar Damalerio. Although Amoro was gunned down before he could testify, his sworn statement to police helped convict local police officer Guillermo Wapile in the Damalerio slaying.
Broadcast journalists found themselves under intense criticism from the government and segments of the public over their coverage of a hostage crisis. On August 23, eight Hong Kong tourists aboard a sightseeing bus were killed when police engaged in a shootout with the hostage-taker in the heart of Manila. The standoff and botched rescue attempt was carried live by local news broadcasters, who came under criticism for revealing police plans to the gunman, who was watching the live coverage on the bus’ television monitor and listening to radio reports. In October, just before announcing the findings of a review panel charged with investigating the incident, President Aquino chided journalists by saying that while he champions freedom of the press, “freedom was not tempered with appropriate responsibility.”
But the government dropped its initial calls to regulate media coverage during future crisis situations. Press groups said a professional review of the media’s performance was due, but they rejected government controls. In a statement on August 25, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said that “legislated restrictions on media coverage are more dangerous and could pave the way for abuses and excesses by authorities in responding to crisis situations.” It went on to note: “Some colleagues clearly violated ethical standards and established procedures and guidelines in covering crisis situations including hostage-taking incidents.”