COMMENT: Money May Lure to Death

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GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/04 July)–It has never been talked about aloud but lure of money, not just call of duty in the name of press freedom, could have led the 32 journalists to their death in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. Under different circumstances, lure of money, it now appears, might abort justice for the 32 journalists.

It has been reported that complainants for 14 of the 32 victims are in secret talks with the principal accused, former Maguindanao Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his two sons, to settle out-of-court and clear them of the crime. The reports are intriguing.

Among the latest reports: MindaNews, June 24: “Reported deal on Ampatuan Massacre case shocks Justice Now Movement”; Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 25: “Sellout? Kin of 14 Maguindanao massacre victims ask for P50M to settle case”; Inquirer Mindanao, June 25: “Widow of Maguindanao massacre victim told to keep settlement talks secret”; and, Inquirer.net, June 26:  “Gov’t urged to pay Maguindanao massacre victims”.

 Not Surprising

The reports are not surprising. Out-of-court settlement is common. In fact, arbitration is now among the mechanisms to settle court cases before the arraignment stage. While arbitration is normally a no-no in cases of heinous crime like the Ampatuan Massacre, out-of-court settlement is not denied if the parties voluntarily and willingly settle.

That the kin of 14 victims, as reported, have entertained the out-of-court settlement overture from the Ampatuans is not surprising. For them, life must have been hard without their breadwinners who, even then, could eke out hardly enough to feed their families and send their children to school. The kin have been pinning hope on the multimillion-peso indemnity that will go with the conviction of the Ampatuans.

But conviction is very slow in coming, if on the way. The Philippine justice system is really stacked in favor of the accused. The case is in its fourth year. Zaldy, one of the three principal accused, has just been arraigned; of the 194 accused, only 103 have been detained (91 have not been arrested) and only 93 have been arraigned. Can the cases against the principal accused be terminated in the next four years? Too long for the suffering kin to wait! But the wait can last beyond the trial judge’s retirement.

The Ampatuans have secretly made the offer to the fourteen. This, too, is not surprising. The secrecy is calculated to sow discord in the Justice Now Movement, the organization of the victims’ kin. Should the out-of-court settlement succeed, the case will weaken.

Intriguing

The fourteen are among the complainants represented by lawyer Harry Roque, who, while cited as the source of information, has told reporters that he had never been consulted about the deal. Yet, he has not expressed opposition to this but, by the reports, he appears instead to be justifying it.

Roque has cited the government’s slowness in compensating the victims as the reason for the fourteen in entertaining the settlement. The government, he said, has failed in its duty to protect the life of the victims. Unless they are compensated, the victims’ kin will ever be tempted to settle and “cause a miscarriage of justice” (Inquirer: June 25) and he is urging government to pay compensation (Inquirer: June 26).

Roque is seeking redress from the United Nations Human Rights Commission that in two cases had declared the government’s obligation to indemnify the victims. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 26). Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte has strongly maintained the government has no duty to compensate the victims (Inquirer.net, June 26). Has the government the duty? Was it responsible for the massacre?

Duty or no duty, the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo indemnified the media massacre victims – P140,000 each (MindaNews, December 1, 2009, published in Mindanao Times, Davao City); and offered P100,000 to each non-media victim (philstar.com, November 28, 2009: Palace offers P100,000 to each massacre victim). If the Aquino government pays as urged, that will be double indemnity.

 Responsibility

That the Ampatuans are responsible for the massacre is beyond doubt; it has been popularly seen so since November 23, 2009. It’s only the court that is taking eternity to prove the guilt of the accused Ampatuans beyond reasonable doubt. Such is justice!

What responsibility had Government in the massacre that the Aquino III government is now being urged to indemnify the media victims when, as reported in media, each had received P140,000 in indemnity from the Arroyo government within a month of the incident in 2009? A multimillion peso intrigue!

The government is being accused of having failed to secure the life of the victims. This was essentially the same charge that Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu (later Maguindanao governor) – for whose political ambition the victims sacrificed their lives – told the court in Quezon City in January 2010 (Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 28, 2010: Mangudadatu blames Palace for failure to stop ‘violent’ Ampatuans).

What conditions existed immediately before the massacre? Inquirer.net, in its report on November 24, 2009, “Inquirer man recounts harrowing tales of survival”, from General Santos City PDI Correspondent Aquiles Zonio related substantial facts. Other facts had been reported in subsequent reports from the Inquirer and other national media.

Formerly political allies, the Mangudadatus and the Ampatuans broke up when the former revealed their plan to contest the Maguindanao leadership. After the Buluan vice mayor had announced his candidacy for governor in the 2010 election, refusing to reconsider, the Ampatuans warned he would be chopped to pieces should he go to Shariff Aguak to file his candidacy. Mangudadatu knew that was not mere bluff.

On the week he was to file his certificate of candidacy (COC), he requested for security which the PNP Regional Command in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao rejected. Was it on the behest of ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan? He asked for security from the military which was also denied.

Mangudadatu changed plans. He would not go to Shariff Aquak personally. He would send an all-women party led by his wife, two sisters and an aunt with female lawyers. He was relying on an Islamic tradition that women are not to be harmed. For security, he would have media persons from South Cotabato and General Santos City join the women convoy and cover the filing of his COC – believing the women were doubly safe under the eyes of media.

By all indications, Mangudadatu was a media patron. He had the media persons invited through radioman Henry Araneta, obviously his point man. As Zonio reported, 37 members of the tri-media from Koronadal City, Tacurong City and General Santos City accepted the invitation. As mentioned in another report, their names were listed with each one signing. This was a long-time practice. Mangudadatu was responsible for them.

Mangudadatu knew harm awaited his women (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 26, 2009: Massacre planned, says Buluan vice mayor). Hours before the convoy departed, the media people must have been apprehensive. Zonio texted the 6th Infantry Division and was assured the road was safe. In proceeding despite their fears – hidden, allayed by the military – the media persons were also responsible for their fate.

Could the ARMM’s Regional PNP’s and military’s refusal to provide Mangudadatu security and the military’s assurance of safety be grounds to charge the government of failure to secure the lives of the massacre victims?

 Lure of Money

Were the 37* media persons, according to Zonio’s report, just answering to “the call of duty” when they accepted Mangudadatu’s invitation? Were they also considering the money they would gain in covering the event – immediate and potential?

*[NOTE: Three of the 37 – Zonio, Joseph Jubelag, Paul Bernaldez– in Jubelag’s car dropped at their hotel in Tacurong City then decided not to proceed when told of suspicious-looking persons inquiring of their names. Obviously, two of the 37 that Zonio must have taken for journalists based on the list of names and visual count (He wrote: In the convoy “were 58 persons – 37 journalists, 16 Muslim women … and five drivers.”) were not journalists. Only 35 were officially and positively accounted for as journalists – the 32 slain plus the three lucky laggers, the slain identified, claimed and buried by their families.]

War correspondents and some freelance journalists risk their lives in the war front for the money their stories would fetch. Journalists, Filipino and foreign, converged in Sulu – some of them ignoring military security precautions – to scoop stories of foreigners the Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped for the prospect of big money from their articles and books.

The higher the risk, the bigger the story, the bigger the compensation!

General Santos City publisher-editor John Paul Jubelag saw the political rivalry of the Ampatuans and Mangudadatus as “a surefire magnet for news coverage”, implying that the political rivalry would create national interest and boost circulation and political advertisements for the local newspapers, radios and televisions. It also implied that the 37 journalists who accepted Mangudadatu’s invitation would not want to miss the dramatic opening of the political rivalry and the business prospect.

Did the other 36 media persons have the same view as Jubelag’s? The view can be questioned especially concerning the mere filing of the COC not by Mangudadatu in person. Of what interest was that – as well as the future election contest – to the people in General Santos City and South Cotabato the media service area of the victims? The massacre, not the Ampatuan-Mangudadatu political rivalry per se, was what created the national and international media sensation.

Call the view over-speculation, or whatever. The promise of gain lured them to risk their safety. For 32 of them, they gambled and lost – like losing the multimillion peso lotto jackpot. They were hailed for their loyalty to “call of duty” and “martyrdom in the name of press freedom”.  Let these embellish their memory.

Did Mangudadatu promise to compensate them for their service? No one can stop anyone from speculating and asking the question. But there will be no answer. If he did, he was virtually their employer and morally bound to indemnify them.

The kin of 14 victims should be dissuaded from being lured by the Ampatuan millions. Yet, the option is naturally theirs – sacrifice justice for their loved ones to immediate satisfaction of their want, ironically, as the executioners of their loved ones will determine.

Lure of money, like love, is inherent in man – needless to explain; needless to justify; needless to apologize for.  (“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected])

 

 

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