When Local Power Turns Deadly

10.	Our arsenal. When physically attacked, journalist equipment also become one of the targets. Photo was taken in 2013 in Jakarta.10. Our arsenal. When physically attacked, journalist equipment also become one of the targets. Photo was taken in 2013 in Jakarta.
10. Our arsenal. When physically attacked, journalist equipment also become one of the targets. Photo was taken in 2013 in Jakarta.

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — It has been more than four years after his father’s death, but life for Marxlen Bedolido has yet to return to normal. For one, he continually worries about his safety and his future. For another, he is unable to move freely, being under the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP).

“I can’t go to school, I can’t work, because I am afraid,” he tells me via a phone call. “I am just here.”

“Here” is an undisclosed location, although Marxlen, who is in his 20s, allows that he is far from his stepmother and younger brother. He says he doesn’t know how they are doing, having been unable to see them for the last three years. But he says his stepmother is probably not doing so well, since his father was the family’s breadwinner.

Marxlen’s father was journalist Nestor Bedolido, who was shot six times on 19 June 2010 while buying cigarettes in Digos City. The provincial capital of Davao del Sur, Digos is more than 60 kms south of Davao City and some 1,500 kms south of Manila. On the night of the murder, Marxlen and his friend Ritchie Manapol had followed Nestor out of the karaoke bar that the journalist owned. They missed seeing the shooting that took Nestor’s life, but both saw the gunman’s face.

Four months after the killing, Voltaire Mirafuentes turned himself in and confessed to being the gunman. He is now also under the WPP. Mirafuentes’s brother Henry Jr., who was supposedly his accomplice in the older Bedolido’s murder, is currently at the Davao del Sur Rehabilitation Centre as well. Even the alleged masterminds are now in the hands of the state, but that hasn’t calmed the nerves of Nestor Bedolido’s family and friends. After all, the people the Mirafuenteses had pointed to as being behind the murder are both powerful and influential local political figures: former Davao del Sur Governor Douglas Cagas and current Matanao, Davao del Sur Mayor Vicente Fernandez. Too, no mastermind has been convicted so far in the 145 work-related media murders that have taken place in the Philippines since 1986 (based on data from the Manila-based Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility or CMFR).

Similar neighbours

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines along with Indonesia stand out for having a rambunctious press. Both with vibrant – and quite chaotic – democracies, the Philippines and Indonesia also have a shared experience of having members of their respective media fall victim to violence frequently. But while the number of journalists murdered in the Philippines far outstrips that in the Indonesia, the situation in the latter is serious enough for press freedom advocates there to worry.

Both the Philippines and Indonesia have been under dictatorships, during which agents of the state were usually the perpetrators in crimes against the press. But after each country regained democracy – the Philippines in 1986, Indonesia in 1998 – the actors changed. In the Philippines, local officials have emerged as the primary actors in the murders of members of the media. In Indonesia, private citizens now see nothing wrong in cursing and beating up journalists, while local officials have been suspected of involvement in some of the media killings there as well. And just like in the Philippines, it is in Indonesia’s far-flung provinces that journalists are turning up dead.

As a TV reporter based in Jakarta, I am more familiar with stories of colleagues being manhandled, spat on, or abused verbally than of those being murdered. Before I started preparing for this story, I had heard of just three journalists being killed in Indonesia, two of them post-Soeharto.  In the course of more research, I found four more murders that took place after 1998.  But the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says there have been at least seven work-related media deaths in Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto.  All of them occurred far from Jakarta. The nearest took place in Probolinggo, East Java, more than 12 hours by car from the national capital. Most of the others were in other islands, including Maluku and Papua. Among the seven cases cited by CPJ, at least three were suspected of involving local officials.

Indonesia’s figures are of course no match for those of the Philippines. But the two nations are alike in so many ways. Take, for instance, what a group of Filipino academics points out in a 2014 paper on Philippine media killings: “Where freedom is low or absent, regardless of the political system, the murder of journalists hardly exists. Where press freedom is high but the legal system makes murder an unattractive option, the problem is also minimised. Thus the murder of journalists appears to be acute in transitional societies, where press freedom is high but corruption is rife, the legal system is weak, and other institutional characteristics allow this form of violence to escalate.” In Southeast Asia, that last description is a fit not only for the Philippines, but also to an extent Indonesia, as well as Thailand.

Perhaps then there are some lessons to be learned from the Philippine experience that could help Indonesia avoid the same tragic trend. Which is why I found myself in the Philippines in early November this year, just three weeks before the fifth anniversary of a horrendous event that took place in this country.

Massacres and murders

The 2009 Maguindanao Massacre always comes up whenever talks turn to attacks on journalists in the Philippines. On 23 November five years ago, 58 civilians, among them 32 media personnel, were slaughtered in a remote part of the Philippine south. The massacre remains as the worst attack on Philippine journalists yet. But it has been called an “outlier” by those monitoring Philippine media killings, since the journalists had not really been the target of the ambush and were, so to speak, unfortunate “collateral damage”. They were also slain as a group in a single instance. The more common media murder in the Philippines, I have been told, is of one journalist being targeted at a time and then shot dead — much like what happened to Nestor Bedolido.

By the time of Bedolido’s murder, Digos had already been witness to two previous media killings that would later be deemed as work-related. Dominador Bentulan was gunned down in 1998 and Armando Pace in 2006; both were radio broadcasters.

Nestor Bedolido was a newspaperman.  At the time of his death at age 50, Bedolido was the publisher of Mt. Apo Current as well as an editorial consultant and columnist of the weekly tabloid Kastigador. Previously, he was the editor of the weekly magazine Digos Times. But the police here in Davao del Sur told CMFR that Bedolido was no practising journalist. Apparently, this was because Mt. Apo Current was identified with local politician Claude Bautista, for whom Bedolido also worked as a PR man during the 2010 local elections.  Digos Times, meanwhile, was owned by no other than Douglas Cagas, who was then the incumbent governor. The way the police saw it, Bedolido was nothing but a “propagandist”.

But media practitioners in Davao del Sur have begged to differ. While one of Bedolido’s former colleagues at Kastigador said the slain editor had indeed worked for Bautista’s campaign in the 2010 polls, he said that Bedolido’s death could be traced to critical exposes he did on a “local politician”. Alan Nawal, Davao City bureau chief of the national Philippine Daily Inquirer also tells me when I meet him in this city: “For myself, Nestor was killed because of his writings. During his time in Kastigador, he started writing critical stories against Cagas. Whenever Kastigador came (out) with an issue, you could be sure one of the articles was against Cagas.”

That Bedolido had a lot of dirt on Cagas is no surprise since he had previously worked at Digos Times, Nawal says. As for the possibility that Bedolido’s attacks on Cagas had been instigated by Bautista, the then governor’s rival, Nawal remarks, “Nobody could prove it. Only Nestor could say that he worked for Claude P. Bautista at that time. There was no paper trail, he didn’t sign anything that would indicate he received amounts of money from Bautista.”

A tale of two families

Both Cagas and Bautista belong to influential political clans in Davao del Sur. Cagas had trounced Bautista in the May 2010 gubernatorial race. The 2010 polls also saw Cagas’s wife Mercedes landing a provincial board seat while son Marc Douglas IV won a second term as Davao del Sur’s 1st district representative. Bautista’s brother Franklin, meanwhile, managed to capture the province’s 2nd district slot in Congress.

Douglas Cagas decided to run for mayor of Digos City, the provincial capital, in last year’s elections. It was Marc Douglas IV who ran for governor against Claude Bautista.  Mercedes, meanwhile, vied to replace her son in Congress. Among the three Cagases, only Mercedes won in the 2013 polls.

Claude Bautista is now governor of Davao del Sur while brother Franklin has retained his seat in Congress. Another brother, Benjamin Jr., is the mayor of Malita town, with Franklin’s son Bradly is the vice mayor.  Benjamin Jr. was Davao del Sur governor from 2002 to 2007.

Douglas Cagas has repeatedly said he has nothing to do with Nestor Bedolido’s death, as does Mayor Fernandez. Both also say that the charges against them are politically motivated. Since her 71-year-old husband’s surrender to the police in late October, Mercedes Cagas has been telling local media as well that Douglas is being framed for Bedolido’s murder; she says his opponents want to thwart his plans to run again for governor next year. An Inquirer report quotes Governor Bautista as saying that while he felt alluded to, his priority is “to help uplift the living condition of the people in the province”.

Data indicate that there are usually no media killings in areas where there is only one powerful clan, says Dr. Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr., social sciences dean at the Ateneo de Manila University. Aguilar is the lead author of the 2014 paper “Keeping the State at Bay”, which studies media murders in the Philippines between 1998 and 2012.  He and the paper’s other writers observe that during this period the killings of journalists were “largely local in nature” and were “associated with moves to protect, consolidate, or expand the political and economic interests of local power-holders”. Yet, they note, there were no similar killings in areas with political clans that had no rivals or where local power had been consolidated. Aguilar and company point out, “With no challenger, no journalist need be killed, despite the power of local bosses.”

How to build little ‘kingdoms’

Political families are not recent phenomena in the Philippines, and have been around since the U.S. colonial rule in the islands from 1898 to 1946. After the 1986 People Power Revolution, however, political families have multiplied by leaps and bounds, which has only ensured that more areas would have two or more clans jockeying for power. In large part, this may be because the potential spoils for those who clinch local posts or seats have become ever larger following the passage of the 1991 Local Government Code. Aguilar and company write that while the Code was aimed at making “local government units (LGUs) self-reliant entities and active partners as well in the attainment of national goals”, it “has also increased (the LGUs’) influence over social, political, and economic transactions” and their access to local and national resources.

The latter include the Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA, which the national government transfers to LGUs “automatically and unconditionally”, according to the “Keeping the State at Bay” writers.  They add, “In 1991 the IRA represented 6.88 percent of the national budget; by 2011 the corresponding figure had risen to 17.25 percent, registering an average annual increase of 15.9 percent from 1993 to 2011.”

In 2010, the year Bedolido was killed, Davao del Sur’s IRA was 768.6 million pesos, then equivalent to about 17.1 million U.S. dollars.

In theory, such monies are supposed to be used for the welfare of the people and the development of the LGU. In reality, however, local officials – from governor down to the lowliest barangay leader – often enjoy generous discretion on how local funds are spent. Says Zamzamin Ampatuan, mayor of Rajah Buayan in Maguindanao: “We have a local legislature that checks whatever you do, and there are certain standards you have to follow because (the Department of Interior and Local Governments) prescribes certain standards. But on a daily basis, you live almost like a king.”

The Inquirer’s Nawal gives an insight on how local officials are able to have such discretion when he replies to my query on what makes being governor so attractive. “The word is power,” he says. “You can control all mayors, you can control the police. In the Philippines, we have (the Philippine National Police) in Manila, but if you are a police officer, it is not easy for you to become the head of police in an area without the help of a governor and a politician.”

Interestingly, Mayor Fernandez is said to be one of Cagas’s political allies. The late parents of the Mirafuentes brothers used to be employed by Cagas and, if Marxlen Bedolido is to be believed, Fernandez as well.  In his 8 October 2010 sworn statement, self-confessed gunman Voltaire Mirafuentes quotes Cagas as telling him, “’Do not worry about the police, they are under my control. Do not also worry about the case, that is not a problem. The good thing is, it would be done in a very clean way’.”

Rusty wheels of justice

One after another, two judges have already inhibited themselves from handling the murder case filed against Cagas, Fernandez, and two others. The first judge turned out to be the wife of a mayor who is a former ally of Fernandez. The second is related by affinity to Cagas’s wife.

As it is, the case already has one less key witness. Last 31 July, Ritchie Manapol was shot dead here in Davao City. Like Marxlen Bedolido, Manapol had been under the Witness Protection Program, but he had opted out after testifying in the trial of the other suspects in the murder.

Where the case against Cagas and Fernandez will end up next is anybody’s guess. But CMFR’s statistics are not very reassuring about its prospects. As of November this year, CMFR says that of the 15 work-related media murders suspected of involving local governments, only two have made it to trial. Three are still in the prosecutor’s office while the rest have been stuck for years now in the police investigation stage.

Actually, the Bedolido case may not have even made it this far in the legal system had the Justice Department last August not reversed the resolutions of the Prosecutor General and the Investigating Prosecutor. In 2012 Investigating Prosecutor Rassendell Rex Guingoyon twice dismissed the complaints of murder against Cagas and Fernandez, arguing that the right of the respondents should not be prejudiced by Voltaire Mirafuentes’s confession.  The Prosecutor General dismissed a petition for a review of Guingoyon’s resolutions the following year.

Guingoyon is a “protégé of Cagas – he was the one who helped him become a city prosecutor,” comments Nawal. He adds, “Even now if there (would be) cases filed against Cagas it would be immediately dismissed by the city prosecutor.”

Days later, when I ask her about the case at her Manila office, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima hints that while the resolutions were not entirely without legal basis, they were not really right either.  “Remember, a gunman cannot be a gunman if there was no mastermind,” she also says. “A mastermind is supposed to be guiltier than a gunman. Without the mastermind, there cannot be a crime, a killing. Because a gunman only follows instructions.”

Ironically, the state itself had helped put armed men at the beck and call of local officials. As Aguilar and his colleagues note in their paper, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2006 had issued Executive Order 546, which “allegedly enabled local elites…to build private armies in the guise of counterinsurgency. This measure tipped the scales of power in favor of local elites, who become more emboldened over their own territories and personal concerns. It has also made local elected positions highly attractive and rewarding”.

A stranger in familiar land

I should confess that because of what I had read and heard about the southern Philippines, I have been on guard for most of my visit in this country.  Even in Cotabato, where the veiled women and general disorganisation make it seem to me as most like Indonesia among the places I visit in the Philippines, I feel fear. The people I meet there and elsewhere are friendly, especially when they learn I am Indonesian. But I keep asking the Filipino journalists acting as our guides, “Is it safe here? Is it safe here?”

In Jakarta, journalists get hit, kicked, stripped of their clothes, verbally assaulted, or have their still or video cameras trashed.  It is violence of another sort, yes, and it is also unacceptable. But at least journalists like myself in Jakarta get to live another day and keep on reporting.

Then again, just like in the Philippines, decentralisation has led to the rise of political dynasties in Indonesia. While political clans were already around during the Soeharto era, the strongman’s regime kept them on tight leash. Local posts were occupied by the appointees of the regional legislature, which in turn received its instructions from the central government.

Today, says academic Najmu L. Sopian in a 2014 paper on political dynasties in the Philippines and Indonesia,  local direct elections in the latter have not only encouraged “more open political competition”, but have also “opened new channels for local oligarchs to pursue ‘wealth defence’ through the acquisition of elective offices and build their ‘political dynasties’ within their respective regions”.  More worrisome is the fact that some of the clans have resorted to maintaining control of their territory with the use of teams of jawara or martial-arts experts and thugs masquerading as “motorcycle clubs”.

If left unchecked, these families could become so independent of the central government that Jakarta would be hard-pressed in reining them in – as what seems to have happened in many places in the Philippines. That could mean danger for members of the Indonesian media. Aguilar and his colleagues warn: “Where the state does not fully cohere as one, decentralisation legitimises local power and intensifies local contestations. Where the people cohere as one, or where local elites have agreed to share local power, the murderous tendencies of local elites can be muted. Journalists are more likely to be killed in the first case and their lives spared in the second.”

Of the three media killings in Indonesia in which local officials were suspected of involvement, only one has resulted in a conviction. In February 2010, a jury found legislative council member I Nyoman Susrama guilty of plotting the 2009 murder of Radar Bali reporter Anak Agung Prabangsa. Susrama was sentenced to life imprisonment. But the assailant and mastermind remain unknown in the killing of TV reporter Adriyansyah Matra’is, whose death in 2010 is believed to have been connected to his coverage of plans for a large agribusiness in Merauke, Papua.  As for the 2006 murder of freelance journalist Herliyanto, police reported on having arrested three suspects and finding evidence on yet another who happened to be a local official a few months after the crime. But no updates have since been made on the case.

Escalating attacks

In the meantime, spontaneous attacks on media personnel seem to be getting more frequent that the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia (AJI) has begun to keep tally. In the last five years, AJI has counted 247 attacks on journalists – not only in Jakarta — by private citizens who range from political party workers to teachers and businessmen, to mere high school students.

Sifting through AJI’s data, I see that many of the attacks were on photojournalists and broadcast cameramen. In general, the attacks have been on the spur of the moment and usually prompted by someone’s unwillingness to be photographed or have his video taken. In some cases, the journalists had been covering a tussle between two groups, and may have been victims of displaced aggression. There was also an incident in which the slogan on a journalist’s t-shirt proved to be offensive to the people he was covering; not only was he punched and kicked, he was also forced to take off his shirt.

One of the most controversial attacks, however, was instigated by high school students in Jakarta in 2011. It began when students seized a video tape from a TV journalist who had just finished covering a brawl among the youths. A week later, several journalists went back to the school to stage a protest against the assault on their colleague. Instead of sympathy from the school officials, they were beaten up by students. At least one of the journalists had to be hospitalised.

As of October, AJI has already recorded 35 more attacks this year. Former AJI Chairman Eko Maryadi remarks, “Impunity is the real enemy, violence is just the part of it. Nobody has been caught, no one has been brought to justice after a (journalist was harassed). There has been no shock therapy. Hitting a journalist is (now) just a common thing, and it will be repeated.”

Would that it doesn’t get worse. For sure, the Philippines has shown what can happen when people are able to literally get away with murder. According to CMFR, four more journalists have been killed in the Philippines since the start of 2014. Among them was local radio broadcaster Samuel Oliverio, who was shot in the face and the neck just this May in Digos City. CPJ is investigating to see if his murder had anything to do with his job.***

This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Donny Sandjaya Suparman is Indonesian journalist, working as a TV reporter for the Trans7, Indonesia, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.

Donny Suparman's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014
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