CPJ welcomes arrests in 2011 murder of Philippine journalist

Bangkok, September 21, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the arrest in Thailand of two former Philippine politicians wanted in the 2011 murder of environmental journalist Gerardo Ortega. Joel Reyes, a former governor of Palawan province, and his brother, Mario Reyes, a former municipal mayor in the same province, were arrested on Sunday by Thai police in the provincial city of Phuket, according to news reports.

“We applaud the arrest of the suspected masterminds in the murder of Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega and call for Philippine authorities to quickly bring the case to trial,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Ortega’s case represents a strong opportunity for President Benigno Aquino’s government to break the cycle of impunity in media killings that has continued unabated during his five years in power.”

Thailand’s Crime Suppression Division commander, Major General Akradej Pimolsri, said the two were arrested for overstaying their visas and entering the country illegally, the reports said. Akradej said they would be prosecuted under Thailand’s Immigration Act before being deported to the Philippines.

Ortega was shot dead in Palawan’s Puerto Princess City in January 2011, shortly after hosting his radio station talk show. The gunman, Marlon Recamata, was sentenced to life in prison in May 2013 after he pled guilty to the crime. According to court testimony, the Reyeses allegedly ordered Ortega to be killed in retaliation for the journalist’s critical reporting on local mining operations and allegations that then-Governor Joel Reyes had pilfered revenues from a gas field.

It was not immediately clear if the Reyeses will stand trial if they are returned to the Philippines. The brothers have challenged the legality of the charges and sought to quash their arrest warrants before the Supreme Court, according to news reports. In April 2013, an appellate court blocked efforts by the Department of Justice to arrest the Reyeses, saying the department was over-reaching, according to news reports. While the department appealed, the Reyeses reportedly fled. That verdict was upheld in an October 2013, according to reports.

An October 2014 Court of Appeals decision allowed for Justice Secretary Leila De Lima to review a separate panel’s decision to clear the Reyeses of Ortega’s murder, according to reports. The motion was filed by Ortega’s family members; the petition for review is still pending, reports said. Ortega’s family members have voiced concerns about De Lima’s impartiality because she had served as Governor Reyes’ election lawyer, the reports said.

“We still feel anxiety. Our judicial system is not that fast,” Patty Ortega, the journalist’s widow, told Agence France-Presse. “They have money, influence. They slipped through immigration. So it is not far from our thoughts that something else might happen.”