Media watch group hits slow pace of Ampatuan Massacre trial

[Statement of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) on the 15th month since the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009]

The trial of those formally accused in the Ampatuan Massacre, numbering 51 out of the 195 individuals suspected of involvement in it, is ongoing and should be discouraging the further killing of journalists.  That it isn’t—Palawan journalist Gerardo Ortega was murdered only a month ago, the second journalist killed in the line of duty since July 2010 when the Aquino III administration took over—indicates that for the slowness of the process, and its consequent failure to prevent further killings, it might as well not be taking place at all.

Prior to the Massacre, it was the impunity, or exemption from punishment, of the killers of journalists that was encouraging further killings.  For the number of its victims, and the brutality with which the killings were carried out, the Massacre compelled the Arroyo government and the Department of Justice to respond with unwonted speed and attention in late 2009 by hastening the investigation of the incident, identifying the main suspects, and even placing Maguindanao province under martial law and declaring a state of emergency in Sultan Kudarat province and Cotabato City.

The flurry of activity in government, and the media and public attention that characterized the period immediately following the Massacre, only briefly suggested that the killing of journalists would henceforth be speedily resolved and the perpetrators tried and punished. It did not last long enough to prevent the killing in July 2010 of Miguel Belen in Nabua, Camarines Sur.  The reason is obvious: the judicial process has not progressed quickly enough to hold the attention of the media, and therefore of the public.

The media thrive on constant change, on events new and significant. But very little has happened in the Massacre trial over the last several months.  The hearings on the petition for bail of one of the accused principals, Andal Ampatuan Jr., have ended without any decision so far, and the trial on the merits for the other Ampatuans in the case is still to be held.  Andal Ampatuan Sr., who is also among those accused of masterminding the Massacre, is yet to be arraigned despite the dismissal of his petition for certiorari last 31 January 2011. Zaldy, Akmad “Tato” Sr., Anwar and Sajid Islam are all likewise detained but have yet to be arraigned.

The delay in the process may not be the only reason for the resumption of the killing of journalists, but is almost certainly one of the reasons, indicating as it does that the filing of charges against the suspected killers of journalists is no guarantee that they will be punished.

The Free Legal Assistance Group has argued for the need to review the rules of court and other procedural structures that delay the judicial process and result in the denial of justice. While such a review and the consequent changes may themselves take time, there is no better opportunity than now to do such a review and to propose the changes needed to speed up the process. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility urges the media, civil society, lawyers’ groups and others to lend their support to this campaign in furtherance of the need to provide the aggrieved in our society, and not just the slain journalists and their kin, the justice that has been eluding them for decades.

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CMFR (http://www.cmfr-phil.org) is a SEAPA founding member based in Manila, the Philippines, working to promote ethical journalism and to protect press freedom.