The Department of Justice has reversed itself and recommended the filing of murder charges against former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and four others, including his brother, Coron Mayor Mario Reyes Jr., in connection with the cold-blooded killing of Palawan radio broadcaster and environmentalist Gerry Ortega on Jan. 24, 2011.
The new resolution was based on a reinvestigation by the DOJ, which studied new evidence including cell-phone records submitted by Globe Telecoms showing Reyes in communication with Rodolfo Edrad Jr. before and after the killing. Edrad is Reyes’ former close-in security guard who has admitted to hiring the three gunmen, all of whom have been arrested. The first set of investigators had balked at filing murder charges against Reyes for lack of probable cause, but a motion for reconsideration filed by Ortega’s widow Patria compelled the DOJ to order another inquiry.
According to the new DOJ resolution, records of the text exchanges between Reyes and Edrad provided evidence buttressing probable cause that the ex-governor could be behind the murder. In one text exchange, Reyes, who was abroad at the time of the killing, supposedly told Edrad in Filipino that he hoped “the problem” would be over by the time he returned home. The text messages showed that despite his denials, Reyes knew Edrad and that he was constantly communicating with the latter at around the time Ortega was gunned down in a used-clothing shop in Puerto Princesa City, the DOJ resolution said. Edrad himself, a former Marine who surrendered to authorities in February 2011, alleging that he feared for his life, said Reyes had ordered the killing.
The DOJ agrees with Patria Ortega that the motive for the murder was to make her husband pay for his tirades against Reyes for failing to curb mining abuses (the tirades could have led to the ex-governor’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 2010). The case, therefore, puts in stark relief the power dynamics that have been unleashed by mining interests in Palawan. Reyes, for example, is under a travel ban and facing a graft case in the Sandiganbayan for allegedly violating the small-scale mining law, favoring Platinum Group Metals Corp. and allowing its overextraction. Similarly, last November, the Commission on Audit recommended the filing of graft and criminal charges against Reyes and members of the provincial bids and awards committee under his administration for purported irregularities in the use of nearly P3 billion in Malampaya funds. The COA said in a report that Reyes had allowed certain private contractors to corner over 200 infrastructure projects funded by Malampaya royalty. It noted, among others, that in 65 projects, there was only one bidder; that in 139 projects, there were only two bidders; and that 13 projects were allowed to proceed without even an abstract of bids.
The Ortega case, of course, has yet to go to court. And it has some loose ends. The DOJ has to explain, for instance, why former Marinduque Gov. Jose Antonio Carreon was dropped from the recommended charge sheet despite being identified by Edrad as having also ordered the killing. Moreover, Percival Lecias, one of the suspects, has complained to the Commission on Human Rights that he was illegally detained for several days by the National Bureau of Investigation in Palawan, interrogated, and forced to sign statements implicating the other suspects without legal counsel. But these are minor matters when viewed in the context of how the case has progressed.
It is also expected that like Ortega’s, other media killings will be resolved with dispatch. Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo has yet to deliver on his personal assurances of justice to the family of Camarines Sur broadcaster Romeo Olea, who was shot and killed only weeks after Ortega was gunned down. And we are likewise awaiting the result of Robredo’s directive to the police for a “thorough investigation” of the attack on Fernan Jose Angeles Jr., a Daily Tribune reporter covering Malacañang, who now lies unconscious in a hospital after being shot seven times last March 11. While it’s too early to say that the attack on Angeles was related to his job as a journalist, the incident should alarm everyone about the growing spiral of violence in society. Olea was the sixth media person killed under the Aquino administration and the 145th since democracy was restored in 1986. No one wants to see the media death toll worsen.