Culture of impunity as state policy
From being envied, we became a pitied people.
This was the result of the Maguindanao massacre, the 10th anniversary of which arrived two days ago on Nov. 23. Out of the 58 victims of that gruesome incident, a majority— 32—were journalists. Overnight, the Philippines was catapulted to the top of the list of the worst countries in the world for journalists.
Before the Maguindanao massacre, we were the envy of many countries in one essential aspect of life: We Filipinos are a poor people, but we enjoy a cherished right—the freedom of expression that gives us the liberty to speak our minds and criticize our leaders. Many people who live under dictatorial governments—and they are the majority in the Asian region—can only dream of one day enjoying this precious right.
I’m one of the founding trustees of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), which is among the nongovernmental organizations in the forefront of handling human rights cases. Centerlaw started in 2003 representing journalists who were harassed with libel cases filed by politicians and businessmen. Because of our work, we were invited to international conferences and advocacy events that tackled freedom of expression in other countries.
We went to Vietnam and Thailand as trial observers in the cases of jailed journalists, we spoke before opposition parliamentarians in Myanmar on free speech legislation, we conducted workshops for human rights defenders in Cambodia and in the border town of Thailand and Myanmar, and we shared our best practices before journalists and their defenders in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, among others.
There were expressions of envy whenever we talked about the guarantees of free speech and free press in our Constitution and laws, about decisions by our Supreme Court rebuking our government for violating its citizens’ rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, and about the vibrancy of our activists and our independent press. There was already an increasing number of Filipino journalists being killed, but the liberties we enjoyed were foremost in the minds of our brethren in neighboring countries.
Then the Maguindanao massacre happened. The attention of our neighbors shifted to the culture of impunity that thrives in our country, and which gives evil elements in our midst the audacity not merely to muzzle speech but to altogether inflict the silence of the grave on their targets. There are severe restrictions on speech among our neighbors with dictatorial governments, but violators are only arrested and jailed, and there’s no culture of impunity that exacts curtailment of lives. The gaze of our foreign neighbors in our direction henceforth became looks of pity.
After almost 10 years of court trial, the Maguindanao massacre case can be summed up in these numbers: 197 people accused, 117 arrested, 80 at large, and 8 dying in detention. A total of 357 witnesses were presented, producing a case record of 230 volumes.
Apart from the court decision that will come out this December, have we as a people and as a nation learned anything from the Maguindanao massacre? Have we eradicated the culture of impunity that allows weapon-wielding public officials to trifle with the lives of ordinary men and women?
Roughly 58 people have died every three days for the past three years, resulting from a drug war mounted by both police forces and vigilante killers. The entire national police force has been engaged in antidrug operations that have resulted in thousands of suspicious deaths. Even the more than 16,000 deaths caused by vigilante killers were cited in the list of accomplishments of the government in at least one year-end report.
The drug war has given our police officers a mindset that they can act with impunity when dealing with civilian lives, and that their pronouncements of self-absolution will have assured finality.
No, we have not eradicated the culture of impunity that made the Maguindanao massacre happen. We have allowed it to flourish a thousandfold. We have permitted it to become state policy.
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