A Dangerous Place to be a Journalist

Source: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

PAGADIAN CITY — On a bulletin board outside the local office of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) hang photos of the city’s most wanted criminals. Right smack in the center is that of a man in uniform, with crew-cut hair, under a heading that reads: “Killer of Broadcast Journalist Edgar Damalerio.”

This picture has been circulated all throughout Pagadian, a port city that is the center of Western Mindanao, a region that includes Basilan and Zamboanga City and one that is torn by crime and conflict. Yet Damalerio’s alleged killer walks the streets of downtown Pagadian a free man, seen frequently by the journalist’s family and colleagues and, as he admitted to this reporter, even the head of the local NBI.

Damalerio was a hard-hitting newspaper editor, award-winning radio commentator and television host who was gunned down in May. The reason his alleged assassin remains free is this: the wanted man is a police officer, and the police apparently protects its own.

Damalerio is the fourth journalist to have been murdered in Pagadian since 1999. None of the other killers has been identified, much less caught. But the Damalerio case presents an opportunity for authorities to nail the murderer. At least two eyewitnesses have come forward, but the suspected assassin is on the loose, journalists and other sources say, because he has been shielded from arrest by police and government officials here.

Some journalists in this city say they have received death threats for speaking out about the murder, and they now either arm themselves or go around with bodyguards.

According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), 53 journalists have been slain in the country since 1961, 36 of them after the restoration of democracy in 1986. Of the total, only three have been resolved. In only two cases, both in the 1960s, were the killers tried and convicted. The third, in 1996, was the murder of DZMM reporter Bert Berbon whose killer was arrested and tried but for another case.

This has made journalism a risky profession in this country. In its report in 2000, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared: “Despite its free and lively press, or perhaps because of it, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.”

Or, for that matter, for ordinary citizens as well. Even authorities themselves admit that crime is on the rise, firearms are on the loose and there are countless other unsolved killings. In many places in Mindanao like Pagadian City, there is an alarming number of loose firearms in the hands not just of crime syndicates, bandits, pirates, communist rebels and terrorist groups, but also of politicians and their henchmen.

When these armed groups aim their guns at the media, though, they hold democracy hostage as well, says CMFR executive director Melinda de Jesus. Especially in Mindanao, onion-skinned officials who become the subject of exposés and investigations resort to violence in dealing with adverse press reports.

What the Philippine press enjoys, says de Jesus, is “only freedom from government interference and not freedom from violence.” And when journalists are attacked, the community’s right to information is curtailed as well.

The road to Pagadian is strewn with reminders of the perils journalists face. The nearest airport here is in Dipolog City, where lawyer and journalist Ferdie Reyes was killed in 1996. During the six-hour car ride from Dipolog to Pagadian, travellers pass through Ozamiz City in Misamis Occidental where, in 1991, editor Nesino Toling was shot inside his office. In Pagadian itself, one of the most recent media murders before Damalerio’s was that of popular radio personality Olimpio Jalapit, who was gunned down after leaving a press conference in November 2000.

Local and international media groups have put pressure on the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to speed up the resolution of the Damalerio case – with little success. Legal maneuverings on the part of the defense as well as foot-dragging on the part of the prosecution have stalled the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of Police Officer 1 Guillermo Wapille, Damalerio’s alleged killer.

The top brass of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Camp Crame in Quezon City has yet to release a resolution from the Directorate for Investigation Division Management (DIDM) ordering Wapille’s dismissal from service and the suspension of his former superior and ex-Pagadian chief of police Asuri Hawani. PNP officials in Camp Crame said the resolution could not be sent to the PNP chief for signature because the document had “typographical errors,” which needed to be corrected by the DIDM’s hearing board.

Damalerio’s friends and family fear that with these delays, the stage is being set for Wapille to be secretly let off the hook, which would make the 32-year-old journalist’s murder yet another grisly statistic in the growing list of unresolved killings of media people.

Damalerio juggled jobs as a radio commentator for DXKP-Pagadian, managing editor of the Zamboanga Scribe, and host of the cable TV program “Enkwentro” (Encounter). He was best known for his unflinching exposés detailing the alleged involvement of local officials, police and military men, and even fellow journalists in anomalous transactions and illegal activities.

But Damalerio took his job one step further. In the absence of strong local anti-graft groups, he personally filed cases against officials allegedly involved in wrongdoing.

The Office of the Ombudsman in Mindanao, for example, is handling a complaint Damalerio made in November 2001, reporting the allegedly anomalous purchase by the city government of six passenger jeepneys. Nearly a year since, the case has barely moved.

Records of the National Police Commission also show that Damalerio, in his own handwriting, informed DILG Secretary Jose Lina, also in November 2001, that policemen were involved in a “salvaging” (summary execution) attempt. Damalerio also told the DILG chief that illegal video karera was rampant in this city. Nothing came of this letter either.

The letter identified five police officers as “involved” in the “failed salvaging” attempt, including then Pagadian Chief of Police Hawani, Wapille’s superior. Hawani played a crucial part as Damalerio’s tragedy unfolded.

On the evening of May 13, 2002, Damalerio had come from a press conference and was driving his yellow owner-type jeep along Pajares St. in Pagadian in the company of DXKP volunteer reporter and public school teacher Edgar Amorro and farmer Edgar Onggue. Pajares is the street across a tree-lined plaza from the city hall and police station.

Sworn statements by both Amorro and Onggue narrate that two men riding tandem on a motorcycle were waiting for Damalerio’s jeep somewhere on Pajares St. and soon after tailed it. Damalerio, who was driving, slowed down after noticing that they were being followed. His companions asked him why he was slowing down, but he never got to respond. The gunman fired five shots, one of which hit Damalerio on the chest.

The killer doubled back and made one more pass at the crime scene, this time alone on the motorcycle, giving Damalerio’s two companions a clear view of his face. Amorro managed to escape unhurt only because one of the bullets pierced and lodged itself in a bag he held at his side. Onggue was saved by the steel bar behind the driver’s seat that still bears the dent from the bullet.

As his two companions cradled the dying Damalerio in their arms on the street, waiting for a tricycle to take them to a hospital, a police car came to take Damalerio to the Pagadian City Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The police also carted away his jeep and brought it to the police station. No investigation was made of the crime scene, and neither of Damalerio’s companions was questioned. The person in charge of the operation was Chief of Police Hawani.

In his “After Operation Report” addressed to the city mayor, Hawani wrote: “On May 15, 2002, the Pagadian City Police Station headed by a very dynamic chief of police (sic) PSupt Asuri Deocani Hawani has successfully filed to the city prosecutor’s office of Pagadian a murder case against Mr. Ronnie Kilme and John Doe both principal suspects of the shooting incident that transpired on May 13, 2002 at about 8:20 pm.” Hawani’s case was based on the testimony of a certain witness named Rudy Garcia. The police also filed cases against Amorro and Onggue and named them accessories to the murder.

Damalerio’s family and friends were stunned. They decided to go to the NBI Pagadian District Office (PagDO) to give their statements. The two witnesses were shown photos from a folder labeled “Rogue’s Gallery” in the file of NBI PagDO chief Atty. Friolo Icao. The picture on the first page was that of Wapille. Explains Icao: “I had his picture on file because this person already has pending cases for carnapping and robbery. He was reassigned, but then he returned. I knew he was bound to do some mischief again.”

In fact, documents show that Wapille has a standing warrant of arrest, dated August 23, 2000, for the crime of robbery. His victim was a former environment department regional official, from whom he took at gunpoint cash, jewelry, other belongings and a car. The judge recommended no bail. Wapille was assigned to the PNP headquarters at Basilan at the time. (A second charge for carnapping remains pending against Wapille.)

When Icao showed the witnesses Wapille’s picture, they identified him as Damalerio’s killer. To verify, NBI PagDO asked Wapille to appear in a perp lineup. Behind a one-way mirror, Edgar Amorro and Edgar Onggue positively identified Wapille as Damalerio’s gunman.

By the end of May 2002, the PNP Regional Office in Zamboanga City had established that Rudy Garcia, the witness who identified Ronnie Kilme as the killer, was a close friend of Wapille and was actually “the one who takes care/handles the livestock of the said PNP member.” The PNP Regional Office also established that “said witness was believed forced to give his statement just to divert other investigating agencies of the truth of the fact (sic) regarding the killing of the victim.”

Damalerio’s wife Gemma and the two witnesses in his killing filed a complaint against both Wapille and Hawani for grave misconduct before the DIDM in Manila. The provincial police command ordered Wapille restricted to quarters for a month, while Hawani was relieved as chief of police and put on floating status while the administrative case dragged on. Approached by PCIJ for an interview, Hawani refused to comment, saying “It is only Wapille who is facing criminal charges, mine is an administrative case.”

So far, though, the PNP has yet to issue definitive sanctions against the two police officers. Region 9 PNP Chief Felixberto Candado reported in a memo in September 2002: “The Administrative case was remain pending (sic) as of this date for lack of evidence and no witnesses had come out to stand as witness (sic).”

In a memo to the DIDM on November 12, 2002, Candado reiterated: “With regards administrative aspects against cited PNP member, said case is still pending as there was no witness who come to testify against PO1 Wapille (sic).” Yet, by that time, Amorro and Onggue had already given sworn statements against Wapille both to the NBI and the PNP-DIDM.

Both witnesses and their families were also being harassed incessantly, with the wife of Onggue at one point narrowly escaping an abduction attempt by unknown people. Last August, another potential witness — a militiaman who had information about who masterminded the killing — was shot dead while on board a tricycle in Pagadian.

Meanwhile, the cases on Damalerio’s killing were becoming a tangled mess at the office of the city prosecutor, who not only entertained the filing of murder cases against two suspects — Wapille and Kilme — for the same crime, but also the case against the witnesses.

Dismayed, the Damalerio family asked the regional state prosecutors based in Zamboanga City to conduct a preliminary investigation. A three-man panel held a one-day hearing in Pagadian and was never heard from again, although the cases filed by Hawani against Kilme and those against Amorro and Onggue have since been dismissed. Only the case against Wapille remains pending at the fiscal’s office.

Eight months after the killing, the city prosecutor is reportedly ready to file information with the courts only now. When Damalerio’s wife visited Pagadian Regional Trial Court Branch 20 recently to inquire about the case, she was told that Wapille’s lawyer — a former politician and legal consultant of Pagadian’s mayor — had filed a motion to defer the issuance of a warrant of arrest. Gemma Damalerio then asked when the case would be scheduled for hearing. The reply: “Next year na ito.”

Gemma Damalerio also narrates that she saw Hawani at Branch 20. She says the ex-police chief was with Vicente Madarang Cerilles, a powerful Zamboanga del Sur politician. Cerilles, once a fiscal, judge, congressman and governor of the province, is the father of ex-congressman Antonio Cerilles and father-in-law of the incumbent governor Aurora Cerilles. Many Pagadian residents say Hawani is close to the Cerilles family.

Gemma Damalerio has decided not to reside in Pagadian for the time being. Amorro and Onggue — as well as their respective families — say they are still being harassed. The two had been under the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program, which in their case consisted of financial assistance so they could pay for their own security detail. That assistance ended in October, but they are hopeful it will be renewed.

Wapille, for his part, goes around Pagadian apparently without much visible worry and has even been soliciting donations for a tournament the PNP provincial command was holding.

“I cannot put him in jail if there is no order from the court or any legal authority,” insists current Pagadian chief of police Nelson Eucogco. “That’s what the community should understand, when there is still no case in court, when there is still no decision that he will be arrested, you cannot put him in detention. Otherwise, his constitutional rights will be curtailed.” (With additional research by Avigail Olarte in Manila)

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