Journalists want stronger team of public prosecutors in Ampatuan Massacre case

DAVAO CITY  (MindaNews/08 April) —  Five hundred days after the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 persons, 32 of them from the media,  journalists attending a seminar here Thursday said they want a stronger team of public prosecutors to handle the case against the Ampatuans.

A group of senior reporters from all over Mindanao gathered for a workshop on Media Safety and Human Rights Reporting organized by the EU-Philippines Justice Support (EP-JUST) project here noted that aside from the snail-paced criminal case against the suspects,  the public prosecutors do not appear to be providing enough leadership in the prosecution process.

As of Thursday, only 52 of  197 suspects in the massacre, have been arraigned but among the Ampatuans, only Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of Datu Unsay town at the time of the massacre, had been arraigned.

Joseph Jubelag of the General Santos-based Mindanao Bulletin community newspaper said  depending too much on the private prosecutors in the massacre case may be dangerous.

The families of the media victims of the massacre are represented by two sets of lawyers while  another set of private lawyers represents the family of ARMM governor Esmael Mangudadatu who lost his wife, his eldest and youngest sister and other relatives in the massacre.

The participants in the EP-JUST training collectively appealed to Justice Secretary  Leila de Lima to ensure that the Ampatuan murder cases are handled by competent and dedicated prosecutors who  should lead the prosecution and not just depend on the private lawyers representing different groups of victims. They also supported the call for a live media coverage of the Ampatuan hearings.

The DOJ has recently reconstituted the prosecution team in the Ampatuan murder cases. It is now headed by Justice Undersecretary Fancisco Baraan III.

International press freedom organizations in a joint statement called on President Benigno Aquino III to “direct his administration to provide the necessary resources and support to ensure the swift prosecution of suspects accused of murdering journalists and media workers.”

“Marking 500 days since the November 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists and media workers, in the southern island of Mindanao, Philippine and international organizations jointly expressed their outrage and deep concerns at the continuing delays in prosecuting key suspects in the Mindanao massacre and other media killings in the Philippines, the joint statement read.

Veteran journalist Jason Gutierrez of the Agence France Presse in Manila, said that with the state of  impunity and aggravated security risk to working journalists, “there is a need bring out more stories on extra judicial killings, most especially the sustained interest of the media and the public to the Ampatuan massacre case.”

Photojournalist Jess Aznar said there is a need for the media as an institution and individual members of the press to report more on the conflict in Mindanao and its attendant human rights dimension.

Gutierrez meanwhile acknowledged that there are still lots of things to improve on the way the conflict of Mindanao is reported, especially in the Manila-based media and international wire agencies.

To rectify this, he said “more open and often dialogue between the Mindanao reporter and the editors, who are mostly based in Manila should be done.”

He added that journalists, especially desk editors who are farther away from the conflict needs to study and have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the historical roots and contexts of conflict stories.

Exploring other medium by community journalists to have their stories published was also discussed in the workshop.

Often, the community journalists complain that their stories do not get the publication it deserves as it competes for space and other stories.

Al Jacinto, editor of the Zamboanga-based Mindanao Examiner, a print and online community newspaper, suggested setting up a website  to serve as press freedom and human rights platform.

The joint statement by AMARC, Article 19, Center for Law and Democracy, Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, International Federation of Journalists, and International Media Support,  urged the Aquino administration to “provide all necessary resources and support to assist the Quezon City regional trial court, which has been assigned the Ampatuan Town massacre proceedings, to conduct hearings fairly and swiftly.” (BenCyrus G. Ellorin/MindaNews)