(First of Three Parts)
HIS mother is a former president who was widowed when her husband, a prominent opposition leader, was assassinated. And so when Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” C. Aquino III came to power on June 30, 2010, expectations were high that he would act with dispatch and resolve on the unsolved murders of activists, lawyers, church workers, and journalists.
Aquino himself promised as much – and more. In his first State of the Nation Address or SONA, he vowed that his administration would work to end the reign of impunity and extrajudicial killings. In its stead, Aquino said, his administration would usher in an era of “swift justice.”
“Kapayapaan at katahimikan po ang pundasyon ng kaunlaran (Peace and order are the foundations of progress),” Aquino said in his first Sona. “Habang nagpapapatuloy ang barilan, patuloy din ang pagkakagapos natin sa kahirapan (So long as there is gunfire, so too will we continue to be impoverished).”
Aquino did busy himself trying to address the country’s economic woes. In the first half of his term, Aquino and his economic managers assiduously sought and in time earned the Philippines unanimous upgrades from the world’s most creditable ratings agencies, notably Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor.
Parallel to that, however, were the country’s lower and lower scores from the world’s most creditable human rights monitoring agencies – in large measure because of the rising numbers of media murders, and the slow, tepid results of official action on the cases.
Under Aquino, the Philippines has scored steadily dipping ratings in recent years from international groups monitoring the state of human rights, media freedom, and freedom of expression such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, Human Rights Asia, and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
In fact, during Aquino’s first 40 months in office, from July 2010 to October 2013, at least 23 journalists were killed, among them 16 radio broadcasters and seven print journalists. It is a trail of blood redder, thicker, and worse compared to the number of work-related media murders per year under four other presidents before him, including his late mother Corazon ‘Cory’ C. Aquino and his immediate predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Only 4 cases in court
Of these 23 media-killing cases, half are already dead in the water because of failure by police investigators to identify or arrest suspects. Only four are in the trial stage. Twelve of the murder cases have no charges filed against anyone yet, while the remaining seven are still in the level of the public prosecutor or the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the determination of probable cause. In other words, less than a fifth of the media murder cases have moved beyond the investigation phase.
For sure, part of the problem lies with a criminal justice system that is in need of a serious overhaul. But there is also no doubt that for so long as the Aquino administration continues to lack clear and unequivocal policy directions on media killings, the trail of blood will only get longer.
“The killings are being encouraged by the fact that of the killers of journalists, no mastermind has been tried or punished,” says former University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications Dean Luis Teodoro, now a trustee of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ).
“What is disappointing is that we were hoping (for better) under President Aquino, son of the two icons of democracy,” says Rowena Paraan, chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
“He ran under a platform of anticorruption, transparency, and human rights,” she says. “We were thinking na magkakaroon ng political will and decisive action to address the killings, not only of the media, but also of the activists, priests, and lawyers.”
For this report, PCIJ reviewed the records of two independent media agencies that have been monitoring media murders in the country since 1986: the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and NUJP.
CMFR is the secretariat of FFFJ, which is composed of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), CMFR, and PCIJ.
Under Aquino, CMFR has documented 19 media murders, while NUJP has monitored 18. Fourteen cases appear in both lists. CMFR’s list, however, has five cases not enrolled in NUJP’s records, while NUJP has four cases not appearing in CMFR’s list, hence PCIJ’s total count of 23 cases of media murders.
Aquino had actually started his term on a relatively high note with media groups. Just months before his election as President, Aquino had pledged to support the long-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, drawing cheers from media organizations.
Appeals for urgent action
Two months into his presidency, in August 2010, Aquino agreed to meet with FFFJ and NUJP to discuss the groups’ concerns about the spate of media killings, which had peaked during the time of his predecessor and nemesis, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
But Aquino skipped the scheduled meeting on account supposedly of more pressing matters. It was to be a portent of the President’s apparent lukewarm attitude toward the cases.
The meeting was held just the same in Malacañang, with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and Communication Secretaries Herminio Coloma Jr. and Ricky Carandang and Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III in attendance. They received from FFFJ and NUJP full documentation of all the cases of media murders since 1986, and a list of matters requiring “urgent action” by the President.
FFFJ and NUJP implored the Palace to act with dispatch on, among others, the service of arrest warrants that local courts had issued months earlier against the masterminds and suspects in at least two media murders.
The officials and journalists agreed on concrete steps that could be taken, such as the formation of police tracker teams to locate suspects, the possible creation of special courts to assure swift and continuing trial of cases, and the conduct of dialogues with local officials and citizens in “high-risk areas” where state and non-state actors hostile to independent media abound.
The meeting also focused on several concerns that FFFJ and NUJP noted stand in the way of the litigation of cases, including:
The dire need to upgrade the training and capability of police investigators assigned to gather evidence, process witnesses, and build cases against both gunmen and masterminds;
The need to ease the case load of public prosecutors assigned to prosecute media murder cases in court;
The need to strengthen the Witness Protection Program (WPP) to encourage more witnesses to come forward and testify against the perpetrators; and
The need for the President himself to demonstrate political will and declare a clear and unequivocal policy to promote and protect press freedom, and to abate cases of harassment and murder of media workers. (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism)