On December 8, 2021, at around 6:30 p.m., unidentified motorcycle-riding assailants shot Philippine reporter Jesus Malabanan in the head while he was watching television at his family’s store in Calbayog City, Samar province, according to news reports. The reporter was declared dead on arrival at the city’s St. Camillus Hospital, the reports said.
Malabanan, a correspondent with the local Manila Standard, Manila Times, and Bandera news outlets, was also a long-time stringer for the Reuters news agency, according to Rappler, which quoted his former Reuters colleague Manny Mogato as saying he contributed reporting to the agency’s series on President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal drug war, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018.
That colleague also said that Malabanan had been threatened over his work, but did not specify the nature of the threats.
In 2021, the International Criminal Court opened formal investigations into Duterte’s drug war for causing potential crimes against humanity, a probe that could eventually seek to try the Philippine leader, according to news reports. The ICC agreed to suspend its investigation in September 2021 at the Philippine government’s request, and the court’s prosecutor filed an application to reopen the application in June 2022.
A Reuters report said Malabanan last worked for the news agency while reporting on Duterte’s war on drugs and was no longer with Reuters at the time of his death. "We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Jesus Malabanan," a Reuters spokesperson quoted in the report said, describing him as a "talented and tenacious journalist."
The Presidential Task Force on Media Security, a state agency comprised of law enforcement agencies including the Philippine National Police (PNP) tasked with solving media murders, said in a statement soon after Malabanan’s murder that the suspects had fled north after the killing and police were conducting a “hot pursuit operation.”
In a December 14 email to CPJ, the task force said Malabanan’s murder was “definitely not work related” and that “the biggest possible motive for the killing was a dispute over a very large tract of land in Calbayog.” The task force said its assessment was based on “information culled from affidavits duly subscribed by various witnesses.”
The task force, citing information from the PNP’s Special Investigation Task Group, “found out that Malabanan led and represented a group of claimants over the property and had protested the recent sale of a portion thereof to a local buyer. There was even a heated argument between the parties during a previous meeting with barangay (village) officials.”
Task force executive director Joel Egco was quoted in local reports saying that Malabanan “wrote only feel-good stories,” which he claimed the journalist’s co-workers at the Manila Standard said to him in an online exchange soon after his murder.
Manila Standard countered that claim in a December 13 op-ed, which said that “Egco did not reach out to any member of the publication’s news desk in any official manner. Nor did he or any member of his task force seek out our editors for comment on Malabanan’s work.”
The Manila Standard said Malabanan previously sought protection over “security concerns.” In 2017, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security issued police security measures to Malabanan at his request, according to the task force’s statement, which did not specify why the reporter had requested those measures or how long they were in place.
The op-ed noted that Malabanan helped Reuters with its award-winning coverage of Duterte’s drug war and that he had earlier hidden in Samar after receiving threats over his reporting.
"Why, then, would somebody who wrote feel-good stories resort to these measures?" the paper asked in the op-ed. "That’s a fact, not propaganda. Under this administration, journalists are being attacked – killed, threatened, insulted, persecuted – for daring to do their jobs in an environment that claims to value press freedom but tries to justify all the ways to stifle it."
Manila Standard, Manila Times, and Bandera did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment on Malabanan’s killing.
Len Olea, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), a local press freedom group, told CPJ by email that “we are not discounting yet the possibility that his murder is work-related unless further investigation by authorities prove otherwise. Those who were able to work with Malabanan confirmed he also covered the ‘war on drugs.’”
On February 2, 2022, the Philippine National police filed murder charges against Aries Solomon and Jerry Trinidad, two at-large suspects from Calbayong City’s Tinambacan district, according to the official Philippine News Agency and independent news reports.
On June 7, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security announced in a statement that Judge Cicero Lampasa of Branch 32 of the Regional Trial Court of Calbayog City issued an arrest warrant for Solomon after the prosecutor’s office found probable cause that he had participated in Malabanan’s killing.
The task force did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request on the charges, or how they related to the alleged land dispute or Malabanan’s journalism. CPJ was not able to find contact information for the two suspects or their legal representatives.
Olea told CPJ by email in mid-February 2022 that the charges did not represent closure on the case, and that he hoped “authorities will be able to identify the mastermind/s behind the killing.”
CPJ called the Calbayog City police for comment, but no one answered.