THE INTERNATIONAL Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) designated Nov. 23 as the International Day to End Impunity during its biannual General Meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, from May 30 to June 3, 2011. IFEX is a network of more than 90 press freedom advocates and human rights organizations around the globe. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which publishes PJR Reports, is a member of the IFEX Council.
Nov. 23 was chosen in remembrance of the 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers massacred in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province on Nov. 23, 2009. The Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre was the single, worst attack on press freedom in Philippine history.
Ampatuan Massacre Trial
The trial against 196 persons accused of planning and executing the massacre of the members of the convoy led by the wife of then Buluan vice-mayor and now Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu (plus the murder of the six passers-by) has been ongoing for more than a year but has moved slowly.
Last June 1, the patriarch of the Maguindanao-based Ampatuan clan joined the list of those already arraigned for the 57 counts of murder filed in court (the body of a journalist – that of the Midland Review’s Reynaldo Momay – who was with the 57 people killed has not been found).
Andal Ampatuan Sr., former governor of Maguindanao, pled not guilty to the charges together with accused Mohammad Datumanong (allegedly a “bagman” for the Ampatuans). Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City has yet to schedule the arraignment of four other Ampatuans—former Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy, Sajid Islam, Akmad Tato and Anwar—and 17 others in detention pending the resolution of their motions and petitions.
The Ampatuan Massacre may be the worst, but is only one of the many cases of assassinations and other threats encouraged by the culture of impunity so deeply entrenched in the Philippines. The Philippines now ranks third in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index among the 13 countries with the most number of unsolved media murders from January 2001 to December 2010. As in the Ampatuan Massacre trial, technicalities like petitions for bail, certiorari, and prohibition have hampered the progress of murder cases as well as attacks against journalists and media workers.
For example, the murder case against the accused killer of Dennis Cuesta was archived in 2010. The decision came after the suspected gunman—police inspector Redempto Acharon—had been free more than a year after the Makati court issued an arrest warrant against him.
The murder case against the two suspected masterminds behind the killing of broadcaster-columnist Marlene Esperat is also on hold because the appellate court of Mindanao had granted their petition for a preliminary injunction, which in effect prevents the arrest warrants issued by a lower court from being served against them.
The July 2010 Miguel Belen murder case, the first work-related case in the new administration of Benigno Aquino III, has been stalled since last year in hearing the petition for bail filed by the alleged gunman.
Problems of the judiciary
Aside from legal technicalities, the judiciary’s lack of manpower, its clogged dockets, and budgetary constraints may have also contributed to the culture of impunity.
The Ampatuan Massacre trial—which is heard on Wednesdays and Thursdays every week—could even be in a better position compared to cases in far-flung provinces where hearings are sometimes held two months apart (with only an hour per hearing date).
For example, the formal offer of prosecution evidence in the frustrated murder of radio blocktimer Alberto Martinez ended only this June as a result of clogged dockets and lack of manpower. At one point, the Kabacan, North Cotabato RTC which handles the Martinez case had to share a judge with another province’s court.
In an open letter dated April 18, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists together with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines, the Manila newspaper BusinessWorld, and selected faculty members of the University of the Philippines-College of Mass Communication asked Pres. Benigno Aquino III “to show political will to put an end to impunity and to launch the presidential initiatives needed to begin the process of change.”
Press freedom groups and human rights organizations have proposed reforms in the criminal justice system. These groups have called for amendments to the Revised Penal Code and the Rules of Court and the Witness Protection Program law. Continuing training for police investigators and prosecutors in forensic and evidence-gathering has been proposed.
Impunity is just one of the many challenges the Philippine press faces as it tries to fulfill its duty as citizen watchdog. Issues of access to information, self-censorship, prior restraint and libel still haunt the Philippine media. But, hopefully, the campaign to end impunity and defend press freedom will produce results during the administration of Aquino, who, together with former media practitioners in his Cabinet, has promised to support a free press and the people’s right to information.
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