Romeo Jimmy Cabillo

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

In the deadliest event for the press ever recorded by CPJ, 30 Philippine journalists and two media support workers were ambushed and brutally slain on November 23 as they traveled in Maguindanao province with a convoy of people who intended to file gubernatorial candidacy papers for a local politician. In all, 57 people were killed in a shocking display of barbarism apparently motivated by political clan rivalries. Most of the bodies were dumped in a mass hillside grave in the town of Ampatuan.

On December 19, 2019—over a decade after the murders—a court in Quezon City found two suspected masterminds, Andal Ampatuan Jr. his brother Zaldy Ampatuan, and 26 accomplices including senior police officials guilty of murder, according to CPJ’s monitoring of a ABS-CBN broadcast live feed of the verdict and media reports.

A fact-finding report by four local press organizations—the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, MindaNews, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—said most of the victims had worked for Mindanao-based newspapers, with some employed by radio and television outlets. “The massacre claimed nearly an entire generation of journalists from the small print and broadcast communities of General Santos, Koronadal City, and nearby areas,” said the report, noting that most of the victims were married and had children.

The entourage was on its way to Shariff Aguak to file documents in support of local political leader Esmael Mangudadatu’s candidacy for provincial governor. Having been warned of a possible ambush, Mangudadatu did not travel with the group but instead sent female family members and supporters, and invited the press to go along, in the belief that women and independent witnesses would not be attacked, according to local and foreign media reports.

Police quickly identified Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of Datu Unsay in Maguindanao and son of the provincial governor, as a prime suspect behind the killings. Ampatuan surrendered to authorities but proclaimed his innocence. Investigators said that about 100 heavily armed men loyal to Ampatuan abducted the group, took them to a more remote hillside, and then opened fire. Reuters quoted one of its photographers at the scene as saying that many bodies had both bullet and machete wounds. Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs, and one of the female victims was pregnant, Reuters and other sources reported.

The journalists were not directly targeted for their work, but were the victims of a long- running feud between two rival political clans competing for supremacy in the area. The massacre was not linked to Mindanao’s decades-old guerrilla battle between Muslim secessionist and the Philippine army.

In their fact-finding report, the four local press groups highlighted a number of concerns about the initial police investigation. The report said the crime scene had not been well preserved and that personal belongings were still strewn about several days after the massacre. The recovery effort, which relied on the use of excavation equipment, compromised forensic evidence, it added. The report also expressed concern that potential witnesses—seemingly many since a number of homes and a mosque overlook the crime scene—had been intimidated into silence.

The report, quoting retrieval team members, said the pit where many bodies were buried might have been dug several days before the massacre.

The massacre occurred just 300 meters (1,000 feet) from a detachment of the Civilian Armed Forces, a local government militia. Members of the unit initially claimed to have seen no convoy, even though the vehicles were intercepted in a nearby spot that would have been clearly visible, the fact-finding report said.

Legal proceedings in the case started in January 2010 and have been driven by Justice Department prosecutors and private lawyers representing some of the victims’ families, according to news reports.

Of 198 suspects initially charged, 117 were arrested with the remainder at large as of September 2019, according to reports. Charges against nine suspects were eventually dropped, including three who were allowed to become state witnesses, the reports said.

Four suspects died in detention, including Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former Maguindanao governor whom prosecutors alleged masterminded the massacre, according to reports.

On July 17, 2019, hearings on the massacre officially concluded and the case was submitted for a verdict, according to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, as quoted in reports. The principal accused, Andal Ampatuan Jr., lacked legal representation at the trial’s end after his lawyer, Raymond Fortun, withdrew from the case, according to news reports.

On December 19, 2019, a court sentenced Andal and Zaldy Ampatuan and their accomplices to reclusion perpetua, or up to 40 years in prison, without parole, the Philippine Star reported. Their brother, Sajid Islam Ampatuan, was acquitted in the ruling, reports said. The court sentenced a further 15 suspects, including several police officials, to between six and 10 years in prison as accessories to the crime, the Philippine Star reported.

As of late December 2019, an estimated 80 accomplices to the crime were still at large, according to news reports. Those still at large included additional members of the Ampatuan clan, according to a statement by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a local press group and news reports.

No single event has claimed as many journalists’ lives in the 18 years since CPJ began compiling detailed records.

According to CPJ research, the deadliest prior event for the press came in Iraq on October 12, 2006, when 11 employees of Al-Shaabiya television were killed in an attack at the station’s Baghdad studios.