On the road to Sharif Aguak: Still No Justice in Sight

[SEAPA Impunity Report 2013]

One way to illustrate the continuing reign of impunity in the Philippines is to revisit the road to Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, follow the deadly trail of 58 people, 32 of them media workers, waylaid to their deaths in sitio (subvillage) Salman, barangay Masalay of Ampatuan town on that fateful day of 23 November 2009.

It was what media and press freedom groups considered as the worst attack against press freedom in the country, over a hundred heavily armed men killing a group of unarmed supporters of a local politician and media workers; and then trying to cover up their tracks by burying the bodies in a mass grave on a hill, using a backhoe owned by the provincial government.

“Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” Reporters without Borders once described the attack.

Shocking in both its scale and brutality, the killing promptly raised an outcry that reverberated in different corners of the world, forcing authorities to arrest the patriarch and the son of the reigning Ampatuan clan suspected to have masterminded the killing.

At first, most people thought of these arrests and this unmasking of the reigning powerful political clan as the beginning of the end of the reign of terror in Maguindanao.

But four years after the carnage and under another national leadership, the trial has not yet gone very far: not one of the three principal suspects has been convicted, three key witnesses had been killed, another thrown into jail instead of being protected, and relatives of the victims were reportedly given offers to withdraw from the case, the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) noted.

This failure of the Aquino administration to deliver justice to the victims of the worst media killing in history and to take its perpetrators into account allowed the country to keep its place among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

The impunity index of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this year placed the Philippines next only to Iraq and Somalia as countries where journalists are being killed and their killers go scot-free.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsiblity (CMFR), which keeps track of journalist killings, registered 19 journalist deaths under the Aquino administration, a figure which may be lower than that of the Arroyo administration’s 80 killings over a nine-year period but definitely higher than the 11 deaths posted during former President Ramos’s six-year term and the six deaths during former President Estrada’s three-year term.

Reigning culture

The Ampatuan case best illustrates the reign of impunity in the country: Despite the worldwide attention it generated, the legal actions initiated by families of the victims and the international support of the case, the Ampatuans are still in power, their scandalous wealth (unexplained amid the widespread poverty of Maguindanao), though frozen, has not been confiscated.

Journalists faithfully keeping track of the case, also noted how in the last 2010 and 2013 elections, quite a number of Ampatuans won various seats in local government positions.

What’s worse, the private armies which made such killing possible are still on the rampage, despite President’s Aquino’s earlier campaign promise to dismantle them.

Impunity, defined by the American Heritage dictionary as “exemption from punishment,” best describes how the killings of journalists in the Philippines are being carried out. Few of these cases ever reached convictions, and when they do, convictions only involved actual triggermen, the masterminds going scot-free and never punished.

Journalist groups like the NUJP and media watchdog CMFR have repeatedly warned that government’s lukewarm response to go after the perpetrators of journalist killings can further “embolden” the killers, “thinking they can do away with murder,” as CMFR deputy director Luis Teodoro, a former dean at the University of the Philippines, put it.

Government’s weak response actually presents grave threats to the lives of other journalists, who can be the next targets of their fearless attackers, warned the NUJP’s secretary-general Rowena Paraan repeatedly over the past years.

Despite all these warnings, the Aquino administration seemed to have placed journalist killings at the bottom of its agenda. International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed this out after the President’s state of the nation address in July for failing to mention anything about addressing the killings, not only of journalists but also of political activists in the country. Groups have repeatedly called on Aquino’s government to take steps in dismantling the private armies, responsible for the reign of terror in the countryside and to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill that would make all public officials accountable.

These calls, however, remain unheeded.

Setting up impunity

To understand impunity, and why it persists in the country is to look closely at the country’s power structure; and to reflect upon the reason why the Philippines, whose press has been touted among the freest in Asia, still has its press freedom sitting side by side with the barrel of the gun.

Media groups and analysts blame this on the powerful political warlord clans that come to dominate Philippine politics; establishing their strongholds in the provinces, then strengthening it as they form alliances in the national level. Most of these political warlords, remnants of the feudal relationship of the past, maintain private armies to ensure control over their territories.

A report from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalim (PCIJ), for instance, traced the Ampatuans as a political clan that started office only after the post-Edsa administration of former President Corazon Aquino but became more “entrenched” after 2001, when Andal Sr., the patriarch, won an election.

In the report Amid the fighting, the clan rules Maguindanao, PCIJ detailed how ties between the Ampatuans and the Malacañan strengthened after the 2004 elections, when the province of Maguindanao delivered a wide margin of votes for Arroyo against her popular presidential opponent Fernando Poe, Jr..

Another book, Fraud in the May 2004 elections, by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), also detailed the massive cheating in the 2004 elections, based on the testimonies of poll watchers and eyewitnesses who executed affidavits on how election cheatings were done in different parts of Mindanao, among them in Maguindanao towns controlled by the Ampatuans.

As if in return for this favor, President Arroyo issued Executive Order 546 in 2006, allowing local officials to maintain ‘civilian volunteers’ (another name for these private armies) to fight the secessionist and communist rebels.

Later, the same private army figured in the massacre of media workers who joined the convoy of supporters of Ampatuan’s political opponent. The NUJP’s timeline of events leading to the Ampatuan massacre showed that days before November 23, the stage was already set for the massacre to happen: a number of detachments set up along the road leading to Shariff Aguak town of Maguindanao manned by men in camouflage equipped with long firearms. They were supposed to be on high alert against a possible rebel attack, but Esmael Mangudadatu, the Buluan town mayor out to challenge Ampatuan Sr. in the race for Maguindanao governor, said he was the reason for those detachments. He knew then Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., did not want him to run.

But the Ampatuans of Maguindanao is not unique in the Philippines, NUJP’s Nonoy Espina once pointed out in an interview. All over the Philippines, the political clans and their private armies exist.

The culture of impunity brings about chilling effect among journalists and has a deeper effect on how they do their stories. Some would tend to self-censor, others would refrain from reporting on sensitive issues, which can reflect on the quality of news delivered to the public. The prevailing climate of fear also restricts people’s freedom to voice out their sentiments on issues that directly affect them, hence, the urgent need to address the impunity for real democracy to work.

Political will needed

As a measure against impunity, the state merely needs to muster enough political will to go and punish the perpetrators to discourage other killers from doing the same. When perpetrators are allowed to roam around unpunished, more journalist lives will be at stake.

Media groups in Southeast Asia and around the world need to band together in solidarity to address impunity.

When established machinery to protect human rights appear not to work as they are supposed to, the last and only recourse of journalists will be each other. Journalists’ groups should be active enough and watchful enough on what is going on among journalists in the region, and quick to take actions against threats to press freedom.

Although journalists in each country have to the face threats unique to their country, they would cease to feel so vulnerable and hopeless when they know journalists are backing them up in other parts of the world.