Maguindanao massacre (Year 2) | Inquirer Opinion

Maguindanao massacre (Year 2)

Impunity in the Philippines

A BODY is recovered from a shallow grave in Datu Ampatuan, Maguindanao, where at least 50 bodies were found. REM ZAMORA

(Press freedom watch and media advocacy groups worldwide have designated Nov. 23 International Day to End Impunity. It is no accident that the date is the second anniversary of the 2009 Ampatuan town massacre.

The massacre, in which 32 journalists and media workers were killed, was the worst of its kind in the world. Brutal attacks on media people in the Philippines have been happening since 1986. Journalists are harassed, threatened and killed, in many cases without punishment for perpetrators, hired assassins or masterminds—a phenomenon known as impunity. In countries like the Philippines, impunity has become an established way of doing things.)


The Philippines modeled its press system after the American constitutional provision for freedom of expression and press freedom, using the same words one finds in the US Charter:  “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…”


Filipinos have also chosen not to pass a press law to define the limits of freedom in press practice, although laws have indeed been passed that mandate terms of media coverage, such as the Anti-Violence against Women and Children Law, the Anti-Money Laundering Law and the Human Security Act (against terrorism). But by and large, the courts have observed a libertarian orientation.

The press style is robust and adversarial. Journalists exercise power and influence in society. In the field of broadcast, media personalities gain a measure of fame and celebrity that catapults them into the field of politics.


But the situation in the country reflects fundamental contradictions. Libel in the Philippines is still prosecuted as a crime and politically motivated libel charges are a common instrument of response to journalist critics.

There are few lawyers available for media defense around the country. Journalists working in the rural areas or in cities outside of Metro Manila are stunningly vulnerable to political harassment and violent attacks. The record of the killing of journalists ranks the country among the “most dangerous assignments” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).


Many cases do not get to court and killers go unpunished, not to mention those who ordered the killings. CPJ ranks the Philippines as third in its Global Index of Impunity this year.

Culture of impunity

The word impunity refers to the failure of the state to punish criminal or unlawful conduct. The consistent failure underlies the state of lawlessness in Philippine society: The experience of crime, including violent attacks, from day to day—its perpetration corrupting every system and contaminating even the most routine transactions in daily life.

The documentation of the killing of journalists in the Philippines has established a framework for understanding the larger context of impunity.

Poor awareness

On one level, impunity involves and reflects the poor awareness of many Filipinos about the law and their own rights. Few question the de facto censorship exercised by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board.

The country’s Constitution grants the protection of press freedom from government interference. But records show that radio stations can be closed down in remote towns and cities because these air programs that are critical of local officials.

On another level, the killing of journalists serves to effectively silence the critical voice and dissenting opinion in a community. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility’s

(CMFR) database shows cases implicating public officials and public figures in these killings. These attacks occur more rarely in the capital region, where perhaps, public attention would ensure effective police action.

At this time, only four cases are on record in Metro Manila, one related to coverage of drugs and another involved a land feud that had also been the subject of the victim’s commentary.

Since 1986, there have only been 10 cases which have led to the conviction of hired killers nationwide. The ones, who ordered the killing, are often unnamed. In a singular case, hearings in the prosecution of Marlene Esperat’s killers identified the masterminds, but despite an arrest warrant issued three years ago, the suspect masterminds are still roaming free.

The following conditions foster the culture of impunity:

Weak rule of law, which places powerful persons above the law along with political warlords who rule agencies of law and order

Poor police capability for forensic investigation leading to a reliance on witnesses

Poorly funded Witness Protection Program

Judicial system weighed down by rules and regulations that are vulnerable to legal manipulation

Culture of violence and guns

The weaknesses of the criminal justice system as a whole leave so much crime unsolved and unpunished. Against this background, all ordinary citizens are vulnerable to violent attacks and threats. It is not only journalists who are killed. Activists, NGO workers, lawyers, and judges have been killed in such numbers as to have attracted the attention of the United Nations. Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, identified the period and military general in power when these killings occurred. Extrajudicial killings may have been checked but these have not stopped.

The killing of journalists poses an ironic challenge to Philippine society. Newspapers and broadcast news programs hold a special place in national life, with a central role in public discourse.

Media landscape

Why are so many journalists killed? To add to the above factors, one must consider the peculiarities of the Philippine media and press. The media community is a vocal and visible community. There are, according to the Philippine Media Factbook 2005, 580 newspapers (9 national broadsheets, 19 Manila-based tabloids and 522 community- or province-based); 651 broadcasting stations (250 AM / 401 FM); and 12 Manila-based TV networks and 71 province-based TV networks.

All in all, there are thousands who work in the media and press, some as journalists working within a system of editorial review and others as media practitioners who come to the practice with little training or preparation.

The media style is bold, the use of language daring, with media personalities adapting a popular free-wheeling radio chit-chat that is in-your-face. Popular radio programs favor a bombastic style that attracts an audience. But this style has been noted as provocative of attacks.

The CMFR database shows over 123 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986 (

journalistkilled/). From year to year, the numbers have been compared with journalists dying in countries operating in a state of war.


Documentation, getting the facts right, is a necessary first step. The CMFR database of cases has helped frame a shared understanding of the situation. It has accompanied the count with analysis of cases to discern patterns that may suggest strategic action.

No one was counting the slain during martial law for obvious reasons. The exercise has become quite systematic with the expansion of democratic space for investigation and inquiry. Ironically, however, the end of martial law brought to light the harsh reality of these attacks, leading some to think that the killings were due to a failure of democratic governments.

Fall of Marcos

CMFR first conducted an analysis of the reported cases of killings in 1991, five years after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. CMFR recorded 32 killings from 1986, when people power in February toppled the Marcos regime, to August 1991. Twenty-two of the killings then were classified as deaths in the line of duty. The facts in six of the murders could not be determined and personal issues were involved in four. At the time of the report, no assassin in any of the cases had been brought to trial.

It was a period of heightened contradiction: The new administration under then President Corazon Aquino dismantled the infrastructure of dictatorial controls, but the removal also unleashed competing political forces and demonopolized the instruments of violence.

CMFR presented its database to the Philippine National Police sometime in the late  ’90s which then started up its own listing of cases. Since then, other groups have taken up listing of killings for their various organizational purposes.

The massacre of 58 people on Nov. 23, 2009, in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province, has become an emblematic case for advocates working to end impunity.

32 media workers killed

Thirty-two journalists and media workers were part of a convoy traveling with a politician’s wife who was going to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy. She was accompanied by other women relatives and friends.  No one was spared. Six other civilians who just happened to be passing by were also killed.

CMFR pointed out in its statements that the massacre could have been easily dismissed as politically motivated, linked to the vengeance cycles (rido) of rival clans in that part of the country. But the journalist victims forced more public attention to the case and raised the kind of public outrage that could not be ignored, forcing the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take steps to placate and mollify public opinion.

Advocates help support media defense and have sustained a careful watch of the trial. Various members of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, Inc. (FFFJ) signed on to a motion of lawyers to seek the disbarment of a defense lawyer, among the highest paid legal eagles in the land, for breach of professional conduct. The motion may not prosper but signatories felt it was necessary to protest and put on record the abuse of legal discretion in the defense of the suspect.

Reports here and abroad have noted attempts to silence witnesses, to force members of the families to withdraw their cases from court. There is no limit, it seems, to the application of pressure tactics to tilt the legal process in favor of the accused. Such tactics are seen in courtrooms all over the country, where the means, the wealth and the power of the accused can hire lawyers who are willing to push the envelope of unethical practice.

The legal manipulation of the court system calls for policy review and reform of rules that serve the purpose of lawyers, not the cause of justice.

This test case may crack the walls of impunity. Depending on the outcome, the result may constitute a giant step for justice, sending out the message that no one can be so wealthy or so powerful as to be above the law.

Or it could set back our struggle in the establishment of the rule of law.


This discussion must include the role of government. No matter how steadily NGO workers press their efforts, in the final analysis, it is government agencies that have the power to act and dismantle the instruments of impunity.

While CMFR and FFFJ have found dedicated and committed government officials as allies in their cause, these have been the exception to the rule. And budgetary resources hold back the effectiveness of the very best.

During the Arroyo administration, policy messages uttered by a justice official blamed the media, dismissing the significance of the killings, by describing victims as troublemakers and as fly-by-night or erring members of the press—as the number of killings spiked. Despite the statements to the contrary, despite announced releases of funds to support the work of advocates, the underlying attitude was one of gross indifference.

Eloquent in promise

The administration of President Aquino has been eloquent in its promise for reforms in various areas of governance, including justice for victims of human rights violation. A critical appointment to his Cabinet, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima presented herself as a staunch and fearless ally in the counter-impunity program. But she must be supported by the entire bureaucracy as well as other government agencies.

The government’s third branch, the judicial system, is separate and equal from the executive. Judicial reform is not one that can be ordered by executive fiat. But it can be pushed by presidential initiative.

The Aquino administration may be poised to be more proactive on these issues. But advocate groups have not yet seen the shift of policy or a visible and dramatic action that will counter impunity. Believing in the power of presidential action to turn things around, advocates have been disheartened by the lack of the same.

So once again, there is this long and frustrating wait.

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(Melinda Quintos de Jesus is the executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.)

TAGS: crime, maguindanao massacre, Media Killing

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