During a February interview with CPJ in Manila, murdered Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega's wife, Patria (left) and daughter, Michaella, called for an immediate trial of a former provincial governor alleged to have arranged Ortega's killing in 2011. (Photo: CPJ/ Beh Lih Yi)

‘A long fight’: Family of murdered Philippine journalist Gerry Ortega on their 13-year battle for justice

Philippine journalist Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega vowed he wouldn’t let the death threats stop him from using his radio show to expose corruption on the country’s idyllic tropical island of Palawan.

“I am like a lone flame of a candle in a big dark room. I can’t light the whole room but I light a small corner, and that corner is worth fighting for,” Ortega’s daughter, Michaella Ortega, recalled her father saying.  

Ortega was gunned down in 2011 outside a thrift store in Palawan, shortly after his morning broadcast – a platform he used to report on corruption within the government of now former Palawan provincial governor Joel Reyes.

More than 13 years later, Reyes – the alleged mastermind behind Ortega’s murder – remains at large, despite an outstanding arrest warrant against him. A gunman was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

In March, CPJ and media freedom groups Free Press Unlimited and Reporters Without Borders met with Philippine authorities in the capital Manila to provide new information about where Reyes may be hiding. Philippine national police and the justice department pledged to take action.

Ortega’s murder is widely seen as emblematic of the entrenched impunity in the Southeast Asian country, where since 1992, 96 journalists have been killed in connection with their work.

The Philippines has been consistently listed as one of the world’s worst offenders on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which ranks countries where killers of journalists go free.

CPJ spoke with Michaella and her mother, Patria Ortega, about their hopes that the family’s fight for justice could help end this impunity, the power of journalism, and the failure to solve press killings in the Philippines. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The case has dragged on for 13 years. Why hasn’t full justice been served?

Patria: I don’t know if it’s the system, or the people inside the system. In our case, we have all the evidence. If the case doesn’t go anywhere, or we lose, then it’s a signal to the people.

Gerry Ortega reported on corruption before he was killed. (Photo: ABS-CBN Foundation/Philip Sison) 

Michaella: A lot of international organizations have rightfully assessed that the Gerry Ortega case is emblematic of the level of impunity in the Philippines. This is a very strong case, a lot of public interest, public pressure. Civil society organizations across sectors – environmentalists, human rights, journalists – have pushed for accountability and yet, it’s moving at a snail’s pace. It really shows you the deeply entrenched corruption.

Dad was a loud voice. A voice that held corrupt practices to account, a voice that was speaking truth to power – and then that voice was snuffed out. There was no way that the system could protect these voices.

This is almost the same copy-and-paste case of so many other cases in the Philippines, with strong voices of dissent – journalists, activists, priests, lawyers, anyone who says anything to someone in power – then the [perpetrators] get away with it.

He highlighted a number of issues through his journalism. Are they still relevant today?

Michaella: Very relevant. He was an anti-corruption advocate, he was also pro-environment, and then he did radio broadcast. He really wanted to make sure the government serves the people. It’s not only these issues are still relevant today, but that people like him are dwindling. These are the very voices that you need in times like this, but loud and brave voices are getting snuffed out. It’s very, very difficult to speak out anymore.

You said people like him are dwindling. What does that mean for local journalism?

Michaella: The media landscape is very different now. The killing of journalists, the injustice and impunity could continue to happen. It’s very difficult for us as people, as community to believe that anything can be better. It’s very difficult to convince people of that anymore. When dad was alive, he was the most popular radio commentator in Palawan. How’s that possible? It’s because, somehow, people were able to imagine a better world.

Ortega was threatened before he was killed, yet he continued with his radio broadcast.

Patria: He would say that if they kill you, they kill you. He was banking on his spirituality.

Michaella: He felt like it was his duty to serve the people.

What has it been like fighting for justice for 13 years?

Michaella: When we started out – in the first week after dad was killed – we were having conversations of how do we define what justice looks like. We were not into the thing that my dad was doing. I had just graduated from college, my mom was busy with her [veterinary] clinic – it was a different life that we were pulled into. Suddenly we were meeting lawyers, investigators, people from the government and we were in front of cameras. It was a weird thing when we had just lost someone. Nobody trained for us for this.

So as a way for us to regain some sense of agency, we were asking ourselves – how do we define justice? Why are we even doing this? Why are we showing up?

One of the ways that we have justified it to ourselves is that why we kept showing up is because of justice – obviously to see the conviction of the mastermind – but more importantly, it doesn’t stop there.

Real justice is when there’s enough of a change in the culture, in the system, that people like Gerry Ortega will survive, will thrive, and will have their voices heard.

Is this what keeps you going?

Patria: It’s a long fight. We have to start with the kids. I’m telling people, if there is only one person who talks about the evil of the society, most probably that person will die. But if there are more people [doing the same], then it’s going to be difficult to kill all of them.

Michaella: We show up hoping that it will have some effect. It becomes harder and harder each year – but definitely, if we can have some effect that someone like him would be protected, would not be shot, then we’ve shown that the system can exercise justice.

What do you want to see immediately?

Patria: I want the trial to proceed. I want the case to be done. A conviction.

Michaella: The thing we asked for is for it to go through trial. A fair trial. It has stopped because of technicalities and motions. [The alleged mastermind] escapes justice, becomes a fugitive, we can’t even have a trial. Here’s someone who clearly shows disrespect [to the judicial system].

What do you hope to see next now that new leads of the case have been given to the Philippine authorities?

Patria: I hope the government will act on it. When you don’t shine light on evil people, they will continue do their thing.

Michaella: We fight because we hope to be able to contribute to our community. We have fought precisely because of that kind of support from civil society that we’re not left behind to fend for ourselves. That’s the reason why we can continue to show up. We wouldn’t be able to fight if other people stopped showing up first.

Everyone continues to show up, continues to knock on doors, finding the next window [of opportunity for justice], that’s the major reason why we even have any kind of energy to continue do this.

It’s traumatizing, it’s difficult. We do want to move on with our lives. My dad wouldn’t have wanted us to have a life that’s defined by someone’s murder.  

So [this fight] has to be bigger than that. It being an emblematic case, it being a case that may have some repercussions on the justice system or our culture, then it matters to show up.