MANILA (MindaNews/25 November) – Despite calls to disband private armies, President Aquino has hinted he is not keen on abolishing Executive Order 546, which allowed their use as “force multipliers”‘ in the government’s long running war against insurgents.
”The President is not yet prepared to really heed the call for the scrapping of EO 546,” Justice Secretary Leila De Lima said in an open forum during the opening of the 7th national congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
”The President said we still need to study (EO 546) vis-à-vis current needs,” she said.
Issued by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on July 14, 2006, EO 546 practically legalized private armies by turning them into government militias to fight insurgency.
Aside from ordering the Philippine National Police to support the military in combat operations against insurgents and other serious threats, EO 546 also authorized the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers” in the peace and order plan, subject to the
approval of the local peace and order councils.
Arroyo issued the EO a few days after the national media brought up the issue of Governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr”s “private army.” Ampatuan had mobilized his armed CVOs (Civilian Volunteers Organization) following a supposed bomb attack on the patriarch two weeks earlier (on June 23) which they blamed on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
CVOs are not supposed to be armed.
The EO has been blamed for strengthening the clout of political warlords and paving the way for abuses like the massacre of 58 people, 32 of them journalists, in sitio Masalay, barangay Salman in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on November 23 last year.
De Lima said the new administration has mulled the dismantling of these local militias but that the President was ”still studying” the proposal.
”The primary reason for the force multipliers is the manpower constraints of the AFP to address insurgency problems,” De Lima said.
”The President is still awaiting recommendations of the PNP and the AFP,” she said.
But De Lima admitted the abuses by private armies and government militias have been highlighted in various reports of human rights violations reaching the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
”Their lack of accountability and proper training makes them prone to abuses,” she said. ”There should be enough safeguards to allow them to operate.”
Accounts of the Ampatuan Massacre showed the police figured in setting up the roadblocks at the area where the victims were flagged down and from there brought to the massacre site.
In her keynote address to the NUJP congress, De Lima recognized the threats that media face in their work.
”It is undeniable that the media has been through some particularly rough patches in the last decade,” she said. ”Members of your rank have been the subject of various threats — from threats of legal suits for libel, to threats on your lives.”
She said that 2009 ended with a bang with the massacre but the incident merely ”marked the height of the perceivable pattern of violence leveled against certain sectors, including the media, in recent years.”
”The Maguindanao Massacre may have propelled our nation to the stature of ‘one of the deadliest nations’ for the media, but sad it may to admit, we were already well on our way there long before November 23, 2009.”
Of the 289 cases of extralegal killings monitored by the Task Force 211 of the Department of Justice (DOJ), 65 were media-related.
De Lima also cited the global survey by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) for the period 1996 to 2008, which ranked the Philippines as the world’s 4th worst place for journalists after Iraq, Russia and Columbia.
She told the gathering of journalists they can ”expect a healthy working relationship” from the Aquino administration, one that is founded on respect for your rights, a relationship between equals,” she said.
”Rest assured you will never find greater respect and recognition for the power that media wields than under this administration,” she said. ”By empowering you, we are empowering the voiceless majority, those who tend to be lost by the system. Thus, utter respect for the freedom of the press is truly not under debate at this time.”
But later, when confronted about the derogatory remarks that the President made on the media in his recent visit in Vietnam, De Lima said he hopes the President was only ”expressing his thoughts, and will not translate into real policies and actions.” (Germelina