Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of the Ampatuan clan, is a suspect in the Maguindanao massacre. (Reuters/Joseph Agcaoili)
Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of the Ampatuan clan, is a suspect in the Maguindanao massacre, along with his son and four other clan members. (Reuters/Joseph Agcaoili)

Philippine court bids to gag massacre trial scrutiny

Bangkok, May 12, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned by an appeals court resolution in the Philippines that threatens to curb outside scrutiny of legal proceedings against suspects in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 32 journalists and media practitioners were systematically shot and murdered. 

On April 12, Manila Court of Appeals Justice Danton Bueser ordered Monette Salaysay, a widow of one of the journalist victims, and Rowena Paraan, a director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), to submit a written explanation of published statements they made about a petition now pending before the court to drop murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan, one of six Ampatuan family suspects in the multiple murder case. 

Bueser’s resolution, which is a step toward a court ruling, said their comments were “aspersions of partiality and unfairness” which are “unfounded and malicious, intended to put members of the court and the court itself in a bad light.”

Both Salaysay and Paraan face possible indirect contempt of court charges depending on a ruling on the court’s resolution. Bueser’s resolution noted that Salaysay was quoted in the local Philippine Inquirer as saying she had heard reports that court of appeals’ justices may have received bribes to rule in favor of Zaldy Ampatuan’s petition.

In papers filed in court, Harry Roque, an attorney representing the accused, said that the resolution was worded in a manner that already finds Salaysay and Paraan guilty of contempt of court, thus violating their rights to due process. Indirect contempt of court convictions carry possible six month jail terms and 30,000 peso (US$700) fines in the Philippines.

In her written response to the resolution, Salaysay said she had merely cited a February 14 report in the same newspaper where a columnist had insinuated that justices had received 200 million pesos (US$4.7 million) to dismiss the charges against Zaldy Ampatuan. A senior NUJP representative, who requested anonymity while the resolution is pending, told CPJ that it is meant to intimidate those who are “most active in pushing for justice for the massacre victims.”

“We call on the court of appeals to reconsider its resolution against Monette Salaysay and Rowena Paraan, which threatens to have a chilling effect on those monitoring court proceedings for the Maguindanao massacre,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Outside scrutiny of the legal proceedings will be essential to achieving justice in this landmark case. Court justices should uphold, not restrict, victims’ and monitoring groups’ freedom of expression.”   

The court’s resolution was issued soon after the Ampatuan’s lead lawyer, Redempto Villanueva, ran a paid advertisement on March 23 in several local newspapers claiming that Zaldy Ampatuan’s guilt had been prejudged by statements made at public rallies calling for justice and in the media by private complainants. The commentary cited an unrelated Philippine court verdict that ruled “freedom of expression and speech is not unlimited.”

A CPJ investigation last year found that several family victims of the Maguindanao massacre had been offered financial inducements by people who claimed to represent the Ampatuans to drop their charges. CPJ research also shows that the often politically powerful killers of Philippine journalists frequently resort to threats, bribes, and legal stalling tactics to ensure that justice is not served.

The Philippines ranked third on CPJ’s Impunity Index in 2010, making it one of the worst nations in the world in combating deadly anti-press violence. The index, which calculates unsolved media murders as a percentage of population, highlights countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.