Nineteen journalists have been killed for their work in the Philippines since Benigno Aquino III assumed the presidency in 2010. And in 2013 alone, at least 66 instances of threats, physical assaults, illegal arrests, libel suits and other forms of harassment were recorded.
It has been four years to the day since 58 people, including 32 journalists and media workers, were killed in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. The court trying the accused masterminds is still hearing the bail petitions filed by 63 of the 108 accused who are in custody. This stage of the trial allows the presentation of evidence in chief. But the process has not raised public confidence in the prospect of justice for those killed and their families—at least not during the remaining years of the administration.
The delays are procedural, sanctioned by the rules of court. The Department of Justice has assured the public and the families of those killed that there will be convictions by the end of President Aquino’s term in 2016. But skepticism is widespread—understandably, in view of the trial’s slow progress. Meanwhile, two prosecution witnesses have been killed in separate incidents, and two family members of the slain who were also called to the witness stand have since died.
The skepticism reflects the sad record of justice for killed journalists. Out of 137 cases since 1986, there have only been 11 convictions of the gunmen and their accomplices. No mastermind has been arrested apart from those accused in the Ampatuan massacre trial. The two suspect masterminds in the 2005 killing of Marlene Esperat are still at large despite the arrest warrants issued by three different trial courts. This case has now been archived in the Makati regional trial court.
The killing of 19 journalists since the Aquino administration came to power has raised to six the yearly average of those killed during its first three years, putting it ahead of the two killed per year during the six-year Ramos administration, the three killed in the two-and-a-half-year Estrada administration, and the four killed per year during the Arroyo administration’s first three years
The killers of journalists, and those who resort to physical assaults, threats and other forms of harassment to silence them, are likely to have been emboldened by, among other factors, the message of impunity that the slow progress of the Ampatuan trial has been sending since it began in 2010. Also of possible relevance is the perception that Mr. Aquino is hostile toward the press—an impression transmitted by the lack of support for Freedom of Information legislation and his frequent critical comments about the media.
The quick and credible resolution of the massacre trial—and Mr. Aquino’s expressing some faith in the value of a free press and media’s capacity, despite their shortcomings, to provide the information a democracy needs—can send the opposite message: that the killing of journalists will not go unpunished.
Some media associations and advocacy groups have not been remiss in engaging the Aquino administration in behalf of the need to end the culture of impunity. Almost immediately after Mr. Aquino’s election in 2010, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists proposed the adoption of steps that, among other results, could have strengthened the government’s Witness Protection Program, reformed the rules of court toward accelerating the pace of criminal trials, enhanced the forensic skills of the police, and boosted the credibility of investigations through the formation of a public-private quick response team that would signal government resolve to act on every case, speed up the pace of investigation, and disseminate information whenever a journalist is killed.
The WPP budget has been increased, but the program has continued to exclude requests for help for witnesses’ families. The President’s administrative order to include public prosecutors in the preliminary investigation should help. But the participation of media members and of advocate NGOs can make this a more credible mechanism and help in the investigation.
Every government is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of its constituents. In Year Four of the Ampatuan massacre, the Aquino administration must be held to account for not acting boldly to create the circumstances and foster conditions to counter impunity and promote the rule of law that will be meaningful both for lawyers and for ordinary Filipinos who bear its punishing absence.
The goals of Mr. Aquino’s presidency, primarily the institutionalization of “daang matuwid,” can only gain from these steps, with benefits that will redound to the protection of the press and of ordinary citizens in this democracy.
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