Two unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shot Rex Cornelio Pepino, a reporter at the privately owned Original Energy 93.7 FM broadcaster, in Dumaguete City’s Daro village, in the southern Philippines, on May 5, 2020, according to news reports.
Pepino sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the head, chest, shoulder, and wrist, and was declared dead on arrival at the Silliman University Medical Center, according to the Cebu Daily News. The assailants fled the scene after the attack, according to that report.
At the time of the attack, the reporter was riding home with his wife on a motorcycle after finishing his regular “Hit It Baby” program, according to the Cebu Daily News, which said that his wife survived the attack.
Pepino’s program addressed local issues related to illegal mining, official graft and corruption, and poor governance, the Philippine Inquirer reported.
The Presidential Task Force on Media Security, a state body tasked with investigating media killings, said in a May 21 statement, which CPJ reviewed, that state investigators had identified a vehicle they believe was used in the attack and that persons of interest had been identified.
The vehicle, a gray Toyota Vios with license number 072806, was registered with the Negros Oriential provincial government’s assessor’s office, the statement said. The statement also said involvement of local government officials and personnel in the killing was “not farfetched.”
Joel Sy Egco, the task force’s executive director, was quoted in the statement saying that the “motive behind the killing of Rex Conelio was to silence him.”
In a May 6, 2020, email to CPJ, Egco said the task force had “very strong reason to believe [the killing] was worked related.”
The statement said Pepino’s wife had been placed under the Department of Justice’s Witness Protection Program while investigations were ongoing.
In a June 15, 2020, statement, the task force “expressed alarm” over reports that three National Bureau of Investigation officials on the case had faced threats and intimidation from unnamed “unscrupulous individuals in Negros Oriental.”
A task force statement addressed to CPJ in August 2020 showed that police had issued search warrants for “several” unnamed persons of interest in the case. It said that the filing of cases against various suspects was “imminent.”
A February 12, 2021, task force statement said that the Philippine National Police had identified Rodel Barillo as the primary suspect in the case and that a gun recovered from his residence allegedly matched the firearm used in the killing. Barillo, the statement said, was shot dead by unidentified assailants a week after Pepino’s killing.
That statement said that police had identified other people of interest including police officers Ruel Pinero and Melvin Bulandres of the of Negros Oriental Provincial Police Office. Pinero served as chief of security for Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo at the time of the killing, the statement said.
CPJ was unable to find contact information for Pinero, Bulandres, or their legal representatives.
On February 10, 2021, the National Bureau of Investigation exhumed Pepino’s body to conduct an additional autopsy and to search for bullet fragments in a jacket buried with the victim, which investigators believed could provide forensic information to identify suspects, the statement said.
Nonoy Espina, since-deceased chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, told CPJ in 2020 that his group believes Pepino’s killing was related to his journalism as a “hard-hitting commentator” on local political issues.