There’s the Rub


/ 09:42 PM December 16, 2013

Only a few weeks ago, we marked the fourth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. Several media and lawyer groups did so by noting how four years after the Ampatuans were arrested for the worst crime of the century, they were nowhere near to being tried. The way things were going, the groups cried, it would probably take another century to finally bring them to justice. If at all.

Time was on the side of the Ampatuans. The longer due process took, the less due it became. The longer justice took, the less people believed it could ever be had, a belief that tends to become self-fulfilling.


When I read this, my first thought was how it would impact on the culture of impunity.

Several weeks later several radio commentators were shot and killed in cold blood. One was wounded and escaped by the skin of his teeth. Initially putting it down as isolated incidents when the first couple of shootings took place, government subsequently had to backtrack and give it the weight it deserved.


Frankly, I don’t know why its first instinct when dealing with an atrocity or tragedy is to talk about numbers and suggest it’s not all that bad. I can understand the need for accuracy, but it may not take the place of sensitivity. Whether the dead are 2,000 or 10,000, as in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” or two or four in the wake of the shootings in Mindanao, the point is the horrendousness and unacceptability of what has happened.

I don’t know that these two events—the perception that the Ampatuans have escaped justice probably forever and the gunning down of radio commentators—are directly related, or the one is the immediate cause of the other. I do know they are related in a general way, by way of context, by way of culture. The one inspires the other, the one fuels the other. It’s certainly not going to discourage hit men from ambushing people in broad daylight when a band of cutthroats can cut the throats of three score men and women—quite apart from beheading them and mutilating the women—in plain view of everyone and laugh at the world afterward.

I agree with Reporters Without Borders when it says: “In the face of all this violence against journalists, we urge the police to deploy whatever means are necessary to arrest those responsible and end the unacceptable impunity. Only a firm response from the authorities will deter others from targeting news providers.” I agree with this, but with one very huge caveat.

The problem is not just identifying and arresting suspects, it is putting them on the dock, trying them, and if they are found guilty jailing them, preferably throwing the keys into the bottom of the sea. Murder is a heinous crime, whether it is done savagely or not. It is at least not going to matter to the spouse or children of the dead, particularly where the victim was the breadwinner.

The assumption in Reporters Without Borders’ statement is that once the suspects get arrested, law and justice will take their course. Which is a natural assumption to make in other countries: The one presupposes the other. Not so in a backward country like ours. Between arresting the culprits even in cases where the evidence against them is glaring and trying them and jailing them stretches a long and winding road.

We do not lack for arrests. The Ampatuans were arrested. Joel and Mario Reyes, the chief, indeed only, suspects in the slaying of environmentalist and sometime radio commentator Gerry Ortega were arrested. What we lack is results. The Ampatuans have not been tried. And the Reyeses are sipping cocktail in Tahiti or wherever they are after giving the Bureau of Immigration the slip.

Are things as bad today for journalists as they were in Gloria Arroyo’s time, or even worse as some claim it is? Not at all. The spate of killings of radio commentators over the past couple of weeks is monstrous and alarming, but it is not a reason to twist it toward that conclusion. The difference in conditions between then and now is vast, which has produced, if not equally vast effects, at least perceptible ones.


Then the problem was that the government wasn’t just inutile in stopping the culture of impunity, it was the very thing that bred the culture of impunity. At the very least directly: The Ampatuans were created in the image and likeness of Arroyo, not necessarily in that order. At the very most, indirectly, by way of sanction: A political order that routinely rewards evil and punishes good naturally unleashes impunity in the way that supertyphoons unleash storm surges.

Now the problem is seeing the efforts to stop impunity—and those efforts are there, government at least is not part of the disease, it is part of the cure—to the very end. So long as nothing happens after suspects are identified and arrested, so long will nothing happen to stop impunity. That is as true of the killing of journalists as it is true of corruption.

Arguably, there are limits to what the executive can do, there is such a thing as the separation of powers. The courts have to do their part too, a prospect that fresh revelations about a syndicate in the judiciary running a “rulings for sale” racket do not enhance. But there is no small amount of possibilities too on government’s part, and enormous ones. It has its own justice department, which can always build ironclad cases that make it all the easier to prosecute. The president can always make certain things priority, or transmit as much a sense of urgency to the judiciary as to the legislative. Certainly, the zeal with which he undertook the expulsion of a chief justice must underscore those possibilities.

The same zeal needs to be applied to the crooks and the murderers. Expel them.

Expunge them. Jail them.

That is the only way to stop impunity.

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