Press freedom’s persistent issues

Press freedom in the Philippines continued to be under attack from 2014 to 2015. The killing of journalists is continuing, with four journalists killed from May 2014 to May 2015. The trial of the accused masterminds of the Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre and their supposed henchmen is continuing, but with a primary accused was released, while a witness in the same case was killed.

Battle for bail

Five years have passed since the killing of 58 persons including 32 journalists and media workers in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. The trial of the alleged perpetrators led by members of the Ampatuan clan in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has been moving at a snail’s pace. Since it began in January 2010, not one of the 197 accused has been convicted. Only 112 have been arraigned; 85 other accused persons are still at large.

The trial court is currently hearing evidence from Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. to support his petition for bail. The lawyers of former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan had ended his presentation of rebuttal evidence in November 2014.

Seventy (70) of the 112 arrested accused have asked for their temporary release on bail. The court granted 42 bail petitions including that of Sajid Islam Ampatuan, who was acting provincial governor of Maguindanao at the time of the November 2009 massacre.

In January 2015, the court approved the petition for bail of Sajid Islam Ampatuan. Sajid Islam, however, was only able to post the PHP11.6-million (approximately 260,000 USD) bail bond on 9 March 2015 after the trial court resolved the motion for reconsideration filed by the panel of public prosecutors.

The trial court denied last 6 March 2015 the prosecution panel’s motion for reconsideration, saying that it was “bereft of merit.” According to Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes: “the mere presence of the accused during the meetings, albeit the argument that he occupied a government position, does not ipso facto translate to a conclusion of a strong evidence of guilt. Regardless of the conflicting claims on the duration (of accused Sajid Islam Ampatuan’s term) as OIC-Governor of Maguindanao, the earlier finding of this Court remains undisturbed that the accused, as typified by the witnesses, was only present at the meetings, and did not make any utterances thereat.” [Note: OIC = officer-in-charge]

The other 41 accused whose petitions for bail were granted have yet to file the required bond for their temporary release. The 41 accused were members of the Philippine National Police who manned the checkpoints on the day of the massacre.

On the other hand, the court denied the bail petitions of Andal Ampatuan Sr., Akmad Tato Ampatuan, Anwar Ampatuan Sr., and Police Chief Superintendent Sukarno Dicay.

The trial court denied Andal Ampatuan Sr.’s petition for bail after it established the participation of the clan patriarch in the November 2009 massacre. In a 21 April 2015 joint order, the court said that Andal Sr. “himself called and presided over three meetings that had the agenda of killing persons to prevent Esmael Mangudadatu from pursuing his political plans.” The court added that “Andal Sr. seemed to have established his participation on the very day of the alleged murders through the numerous phone and radio calls that appeared to monitor the execution of the victims at Sitio Masalay.” There were also “untoward acts” Andal Sr. committed after the massacre.

Dying without justice

Less than 50 percent of the work-related journalist killings have reached the courts. Only 15 cases have resulted in the conviction of the gunmen since 1986. The remaining cases are archived temporarily as the men accused of killing journalists have not yet been arrested.

Other cases of attacks and threats on journalists and media workers similarly suffer from the dismal state of the justice system in the Philippines. This dismal state is exemplified by the case of radio broadcaster Alberto “Pastor” Martinez, a blocktimer1 in Kabacan, North Cotabato who was left paralyzed from the waist down after surviving a 2005 attack.

Martinez died without seeing his attackers brought to justice. Ten years after he was attacked, Martinez died last 15 January 2015 due to complications from the injuries from the 2005 attack.

Martinez was supposed to take the witness stand on 27 January 2015 for rebuttal evidence, according to then FFFJ legal counsel Prima Jesusa Quinsayas. Quinsayas represented Martinez as private prosecutor in the frustrated murder case before Branch 22 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Kabacan, North Cotabato against two men accused of shooting Martinez.

On 10 April 2005, three men on board a motorcycle attacked Martinez, who was on his way home from his evening program at the now defunct 101.7 Hot FM in Kabacan, North Cotabato. Martinez was able to name Army Corporal Alvaro Obregon Jr. and Ronilo Quiñones as two of his three attackers while he was being treated at the hospital.

Murder charges were filed against Obregon, Quiñones, and a certain Romeo Araneta before the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of North Cotabato in 2006. Frustrated murder charges were filed in court against Obregon and Quiñones in 2007; the complaint against Araneta was later dismissed by the provincial prosecutor. Both Obregon and Quiñones concluded their presentation of evidence before the trial court in 2014.

Witnesses in danger

Because the killers of journalists and media workers remain free, witnesses’ lives continue to remain in danger. During the period covered by this report, two witnesses in two separate cases of journalists’ killings were themselves killed.

Denex Sacal, a witness in the Ampatuan Massacre, was killed in an ambush in Shariff Aguak town, Maguindanao last 18 November 2014. Unidentified men fired at a motorized tricycle carrying Sacal and another witness, Butch Saudagal, who survived the attack.

Sacal and Saudagal were set to testify for the prosecution when the incident happened. Nena Santos, a private lawyer in the Ampatuan Massacre case, said that both Sacal and Saudagal used to work for Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. when he was still the mayor of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao. Ampatuan Jr. is one of the principal accused in the Massacre.

In Davao City, unidentified men shot dead on 31 July 2014 an eyewitness in the killing of Digos City journalist Nestor Bedolido. Ritchie Manapol was watching a billiards game in Matina village when three armed men attacked him. Manapol tried to run but was cornered by the gunmen and shot to death.

Killings continue

The culture of impunity has encouraged journalist killings to continue in the Philippines. Even with the arrest of suspects for recent murders, the slow pace of the justice system will take years before anyone is brought to justice.

On Valentine’s Day, 2015, another blocktimer was killed in the city of Tagbilaran in Bohol province. Maurito Lim, a retired engineer, was shot when he was about to enter the office of dyRD radio.

The alleged gunman, Jovena Celocia Orenia, was arrested on 6 March 2015 during a drug buy-bust operation. According to Police Officer 1 Jess Francis Monton, head investigator of Lim’s case, Orenia is a professional gun for hire and is involved in the illegal drug trade. An information for murder was filed against Orenia before the Tagbilaran City RTC on 30 March 2015.

The police said that the killing of Lim may be connected to a land dispute. Another possible motive is his frequent attacks against the illegal drug trade in the province of Bohol.

Another suspected gunman in the frustrated murder of a radio commentator was arrested by the police in Dagupan City last 27 August 2014. The gunman turned out to be the radio commentator’s neighbor and is also an alleged drug-pusher.

Police arrested Rolando Lim for the shooting of dwIZ radio commentator Orlando “Orly” Navarro last 26 August 2014. He was charged with frustrated murder at the Dagupan City Regional Trial Court.

At around 1:00 a.m. on 26 August 2014, Navarro was talking to a tricycle driver in Pantal village, Dagupan City, when he was shot in the back. The tricycle driver immediately brought him to a hospital where he has since recovered from his wound. A possible motive for the murder attempt might have been his recent exposes on illegal drugs in their village.

Inadequate Response

Despite the existence of an inter-department task force for the investigation of extra-judicial killings, including journalist killings through the Department of Justice Administrative Order No. 35 (2012), the response of President Benigno C. Aquino III administration has been no different from those who preceded him: the creation of local police task forces. For the past 10 years, human rights groups and press freedom advocates have pointed out the insufficiency of police task forces in battling extrajudicial and media killings. Suggestions for the creation of a multi-sectoral quick response teams have been forwarded several times to the Aquino administration, without any action on the matter.

Meanwhile, during the Journalism Asia Forum on 23 November 2014, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, expressed her personal commitment to correct the acknowledged weaknesses of the justice system, among them the failure to serve warrants of arrest which makes possible the flight of suspects. She noted the participation of law enforcement officers in these crimes.

She emphasized that the Supreme Court has taken “radical” measures meant to accelerate the pace of the Ampatuan Massacre trial and the resolution of other cases pending in the lower courts.

Court Access Denied

As society’s watchdog, the press has a duty to report what is happening inside and outside the courtroom. While limited restrictions may be imposed by the High Court on media coverage, no government agency should totally ban the press from attending trials especially those imbued with public interest. But such was the case in the Ampatuan Massacre trial in 2014, when police have barred members of the press since 14 August 2014 from entering the premises of Camp Bagong Diwa, where the court is holding the massacre trial.

To question the actions of the police and jail officers, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) filed on 11 November 2014 a complaint against key officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) before the Office of the Ombudsman for preventing the media from covering the Ampatuan Massacre trial.

FFFJ2 accused police officers in charge of securing the trial venue of violating press freedom and the people’s right to information for disallowing media coverage of the Ampatuan Massacre hearings.

The ban on media coverage was imposed in addition to Supreme Court-imposed restrictions against live broadcasts of the Ampatuan Massacre trial. Last January 2015, the Court affirmed its 23 October 2012 decision which disallowed live media broadcast of the hearings being conducted by Branch 221 of the Quezon City RTC.

The Supreme Court Teodoro Te spokesperson explained on 13 January 2015 the Court had denied the motions for reconsideration filed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, widows Editha Tiamzon and Glenna Legarta, and the Office of the Solicitor General, finding “no reason to reverse” its resolution forbidding media from airing the proceedings of the Ampatuan Massacre live.

Te said that the Court “cited the need to protect the rights of the parties and the dignity of the courts as well as ensure the orderly conduct of the proceedings.” Practical considerations in broadcasting criminal proceedings in foreign jurisdictions were also mentioned by the Court among the reasons why it does not allow live coverage of the trial.

The 23 October 2012 Resolution modified the Supreme Court’s 14 June 2011 guidelines which allowed the transmittal of audio-visual recordings to radio and television stations.

Still a Bill

Twenty-seven years since the first bill on the subject was filed, the Philippine Congress has yet to pass any law on freedom of information (FOI). Advocates now hope that the 16th Congress will see to the passage of a genuine access to information law before it ends this year.

The proposed FOI law has passed the committee level at the House of Representatives. It will be presented before the House plenary for its second and third reading. According to the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition (R2KRN), the committee report is now being prepared after the approval of the appropriation provision.

Criminal Libel

Libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite calls for its decriminalization. Proposed measures seeking to decriminalize libel under the 83-year-old Revised Penal Code have been filed at the 16th Congress. While these bills are pending in Congress, powerful politicians, government officials and other public personalities continue to use criminal libel as a tool to suppress criticisms against them.

In March 2015, Manila Police District (MPD) officers arrested Hataw tabloid publisher and columnist, and former National Press Club President, Jerry Yap on the strength of a warrant issued by the Manila RTC in connection with a libel complaint filed by the MPD-District Police Intelligence Operation Unit chief.

The libel case stemmed from a 3 October 2014 article in Yap’s column Bulabugin (Rouse) about an alleged drug pusher who, he said, always manages to be released from Manila police custody every time he is arrested. Yap said the man was first caught for illegal drugs and gun possession at a checkpoint but was released later without any charges, during the term of the complainant. The column also appeared in the tabloid Police Files on 4 October 2014.

In Albay province, police arrested BicolToday.com correspondent Elmer James Bandol on 15 April 2015 in connection with a 2012 libel complaint filed by the general manager of a provincial electric cooperative. Bandol was released after posting bail.

Bandol wrote in December 2011 that the electric cooperative in Masbate province suffered financial losses because of “mismanagement,” improper “procurement procedures” and several “illegal transactions.” The report also called cooperative’s general manager as the “Kissing GM” based on several sexual harassment complaints allegedly filed by women employees against him.

A possible development in the campaign to decriminalize libel is its non-inclusion in the proposed Philippine Criminal Code, which is in the process of review and amendments.

1In Philippine broadcast practice, a blocktimer is an individual who purchases “blocks” of TV or radio time for sponsorship. Among the journalists killed in the Philippines since 2002 are 41 blocktimers and “volunteer” practitioners who are not paid by the TV or radio station where they have programs

2 FFFJ is a coalition of five media organizations—the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Philippine Press Institute—formed in 2003 to address the numerous attacks and threats against the press. CMFR and PCIJ are founding members of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)