DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/10 June) – The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has asked President-elect Benigno Simeon Cojuango Aquino to “immediately launch a probe into the circumstances surrounding last November’s massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindano, which it described as “the single deadliest attack against the press anywhere in the world since CPJ started monitoring violations in 1981.”
At least 58 persons were killed, 32 of them from the media, in the Philippines’ worst pre-election tragedy in history.
“We urge you to provide full support and ample resources to the relevant Justice Department agencies to ensure a free, fair, and speedy trial in this landmark case. It is our strong belief that convictions of the masterminds and the assailants involved in the Maguindanao massacre would be a meaningful first step in breaking the cycle of murder and impunity that has taken so many media members’ lives in the Philippines,” said the letter signed by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, copy furnished the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Willy Gaa and the US Ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas, Jr.
The letter added that the concerns about the “deteriorating press freedom situation in your country” is “not confined to the Maguindanao killings.”
“Unpunished media killings are endemic: CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, released in April, ranked the Philippines as having the third-worst record in the world for bringing the killers of journalists to justice—trailing only Iraq and Somalia. It is a record unbefitting Asia’s oldest democracy, and should be addressed immediately,” the letter read.
The November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre was blamed on the Ampatuan clan, with the then mayor of Datu Unsay town, Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr., as principal suspect.
Ampatuan Jr., wanted to run for governor of Maguindanao, post his father held from 2001 to early 2009 when he resigned as governor claiming he had no mandate from the constituents of Shariff Kabunsuan province whose creation was declared unconstitutional and whose constituents were returned back to Maguindanao. But he returned as OIC Governor just before the November 23, 2009 massacre.
Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, a former ally of the Ampatuans, challenged them when he announced he would run for Governor of Maguindanao. He was supposed to file his certificate of candidacy that morning of November 23 but the women – Mangudadatu’s wife Genalyn, his eldest and youngest sister, other relatives, two women human rights lawyers and the media – were sent instead as his mother said the women would not be harmed.
The convoy from Buluan to the provincial office of the Commission on Elections in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, was stopped along with passengers in two other vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time, by about a hundred armed men allegedly led by Ampatuan, Jr.
They were later herded to a village at the foothills of Daguma Range where they were shot dead.
CPJ’s Simon said they hope Aquino will “translate your strong electoral mandate into a firm commitment to end the culture of impunity that has resulted in the extraordinarily high number of media killings in the Philippines.”
Simon said that in the case of the Nov. 23 Massacre, “despite the local and international outcry condemning the killings, indications are that the judicial process may be compromised by political considerations.”
CPJ cited what happened in April when then acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra dropped charges against suspects, Zaldy Ampatuan, the suspended governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and his uncle, Akmad Ampatuan, former mayor of Mamasapano and then OIC Vice Governor of Maguindanao , against the advice of the public prosecutors working on the case.
“Although Agra later reinstated the charges on the basis of newly submitted evidence, his willingness to intervene by overruling the Quezon City Regional Court that is hearing the case underscored how vulnerable judicial processes can be to political pressures in the Philippines. There have also been reports by a highly regarded press group, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, that family members of victims have been approached with offers of money to drop charges against Ampatuan clan members,” the statement added.
As CPJ said it was looking forward to “working with you and your administration on protecting journalists and journalism in the Philippines,” Simon added that Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo set up a unit of the Philippines National Police, known as USIG, dedicated to investigating and resolving media and other extrajudicial killing cases but “regrettably, the USIG has been unsuccessful in achieving substantial convictions in 62 of the 68 journalist murder cases recorded since 1992, according to CJP research.”
“Only partial justice was reached in the other six cases,” he said.
Simon’s letter added that in July 2009, Task Force USIG member Police Chief, Henry Libay told CPJ that the mishandling of evidence and a lack of witnesses willing to testify were major impediments to serving justice. He said that witnesses shied from the courtroom out of fears of reprisal, lack of financial support, and a general distrust of law enforcement.
“We understand that your administration will face obstacles in reversing these trends and breaking the culture of impunity that has resulted in so many media killings, but this should not be an excuse for inaction. A sincere government commitment to press freedom and the protection of journalists is essential to achieving the democratic aspirations embodied in your strong mandate to rule and reform,” CPJ said. (MindaNews)