A Turning Point and A Test

Statement of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (www.cmfr-phil.org)
on the second anniversary of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre

The international press freedom and media advocacy groups may have designated November 23rd as the International Day to End Impunity. But here in the Philippines, on this, the second anniversary of the foul deed now known as the Ampatuan Massacre, the glacial progress of the trial of those accused of planning and carrying it out has become so much a cause for distress because the possibility that it may drag on for years bodes ill for press freedom, human rights and the quest for justice in Philippine society.

A year ago the pace of the judicial proceedings had already set off alarm bells among journalists’ and media advocacy groups, the kin of those killed, and anyone else who still cared about the future of the free press and democracy in this country.

The Massacre was after all a brutal attack on the free press as an institution necessary in any country with any pretense at democracy, and on the people’s right to choose their leaders.  By murdering 58 men and women, among whom were the lawyers, relatives and allies of a candidate for provincial governor, and 32 journalists and media workers, the killers set back press freedom and free elections by so many years, and earned for the country the dubious distinction of being the site, not only of the worst attack on the press in history, but also of a fraudulent democracy.

Both political and media killings have a long and brutal history in this country. Politicians, their allies and their campaign workers are killed so routinely in the Philippines that every election is always declared peaceful, no matter the casualties.  On the other hand, the Massacre was a crime waiting to happen. The persistence of warlordism, the antipathy of local tyrants towards the press, and the many weaknesses of the justice system made it inevitable.

The Massacre, however, was also a turning point, and a test of the will and capacity of the Philippine State not only to assure the safety of its citizens, but also of its ability to provide them justice.

The journalists and media advocacy groups knew a year ago, and know it even more now, that unless the Massacre trial is credibly concluded, with the killers and masterminds convicted and sentenced to the prison terms they so richly deserve, not only will the killing of journalists and those of  human rights workers, political activists, environmental advocates, judges, lawyers, students, farmers and workers continue; the killings will even escalate.

That distinct possibility makes the Massacre trial so crucial to the life and future of this country. And yet, judging by its laid-back response to, among others, the suggestions for reforms in the rules of court media groups andthe Free Legal Assistance Group of lawyers have proposed, the Philippine government does not seem to be in any hurry to address the urgent concerns—for press freedom, democracy, and the country as a whole—the Massacre has triggered.

This simply won’t do.  The Aquino government must not only take the steps necessary to speed up this trial; it must also demonstrate, when journalists are killed, that it has put in place the means to punish the killers and masterminds. To do nothing or little can only lead to more deaths, adding to the six already killed in the line of duty since Mr. Benigno Aquino III took office.