Marlene Garcia-Esperat

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A gunman walked into columnist Marlene Garcia-Esperat’s house in the city of Tacurong, and shot her in front of her family. Garcia-Esperat died at the scene from a single bullet wound to her head, police told reporters. The gunman and his accomplice escaped from the scene on a motorcycle.

An anti-graft columnist for the Midland Review in the southern island of Mindanao, Garcia-Esperat, 45, was under police protection as a result of death threats. Local news reports said that on the day of the shooting she let her two guards leave early for the Easter holiday.

The Philippine National Police Chief, General Arturo Lomibao told reporters “the motive is work-related as media practitioner.” In a radio interview, George Esperat said that his wife had “made many enemies because of her exposés” and that she had received death threats via text message. He also suggested Garcia-Esperat’s murder was connected to a corruption story that she wrote, accusing a police officer of involvement in illegal logging activity. Tacurong Police Chief Raul Supiter said that no motive had been ruled out, according to the Philippines-based MindaNews news service.

On April 11, police announced the arrest of four suspects, including an army sergeant. The four were said to confess their involvement, according to local reports. Newspapers reported several possible leads as to the mastermind; those reports included allegations that two officials from the Mindanao Department of Agriculture, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, plotted Garcia-Esperat’s murder. The officials denied the accusations, but one of the defendants, Randy Barua, a former bodyguard for Sabay, told police that he hired the gunmen at the behest of Montañer and Sabay, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Murder charges were brought against the two officials, but a judge dismissed them on August 31 because of what he termed insufficient and conflicting evidence. The Esperat family lawyer, Nena Santos, told the Manila Standard that the dismissal was “highly questionable and suspicious,” and that it was a “miscarriage of justice.” Santos said the judge made the decision the day before being transferred to another jurisdiction, and the court clerk did not announce the ruling until September 20.

Press freedom groups protested the dismissal of charges against the accused masterminds. The four initial defendants also complained to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Gerry Cabayag, identified as the gunman, said he was afraid of retribution from the two agriculture officials, the Inquirer reported.

A chemist by training, Garcia-Esperat began her work exposing corruption in the early 1990s. During her tenure as ombudsman for the Department of Agriculture, she filed legal actions against several officials accusing them of graft, according to the Inquirer. She also spent two years in the witness protection program due to her ombudsman discoveries.

Garcia-Esperat became a full-time journalist in 2004 after growing frustrated with the government’s tepid reaction to corruption, she told the Inquirer in an earlier interview. She started hosting a program on local radio station DXKR in 2001, and began her column “Madame Witness” at the end of 2002. Garcia-Esperat was also a longtime source for many journalists.