Five years and counting
The worst election-related violence in Philippine history and the worst recorded attack on journalists in the world occurred five years ago today in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. No one has been found guilty of the barbaric crime, to the sorrow of the victims’ families and the outrage of media organizations everywhere.
It’s important to harp on how and where it happened, in order to prevent, or at least slow down, the erosion of memory. The town is named after the Ampatuan clan that had long held sway over the province, with clan members running unopposed in past elections. The clan was facing a challenge in former ally Esmael “Toto”
Mangudadatu facing off with Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. for the governorship of Maguindanao. On that fateful day Genalin Mangudadatu was leading a group that included family members, lawyers and supporters on the road from Buluan to Shariff Aguak towns to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy. A number of journalists and media workers were in the convoy, having been invited to cover and witness the filing of the certificate.
Those in the convoy never got to Shariff Aguak.
Witnesses say that just five kilometers from their destination, more than 100 armed men led by Unsay Ampatuan himself intercepted the convoy at a police checkpoint in Barangay Salmon. The members of the convoy were forced to walk up a hill, where they were all gunned down. In a slapdash effort to cover up the murders, some of the bodies were dumped in a shallow grave using a backhoe owned by the Maguindanao provincial government; the other bodies were left aboveground in disarray.
In all, 58 men and women were killed on that day: 15 of Toto Mangudadatu’s family members, including his wife, and supporters; 32 journalists and media workers; two lawyers and the father of one of them; two van drivers; and six people who happened to be driving by.
First the nation and then the world reacted with horror to the murders, pushing the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a known ally of the Ampatuans, to order an investigation. The Department of Justice would eventually charge 197 people, among them Unsay Ampatuan and his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., 70 policemen and soldiers, and 110 militia members, with 58 counts of murder. The trial began in 2010—and is still going on.
Just this past week, a man identified as a key witness in the trial was killed and another injured in an attack in Shariff Aguak. “I see no other reason why they would be ambushed aside from their desire to become state witnesses,” said Toto Mangudadatu, now governor of Maguindanao.
Yesterday, Malacañang spokesperson Abigail Valte said the administration’s “efforts have been concentrated on pushing the case forward.” Earlier this month in a TV interview, President Aquino noted the snail’s pace of the trial: “I feel the frustration somewhat,” he said in Filipino. “In the case of the Maguindanao massacre, I also feel what the families of the victims feel.” It certainly doesn’t show.
Consider the big picture. Even now, members of the media are being felled by gunmen, constantly proving that the culture of impunity continues to flourish in what has become known as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), 145 journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty since 1986, including 25 since Mr. Aquino was elected into office in 2010. “No mastermind has been convicted since 1986,” the CMFR points out.
Last Nov. 2, the United Nations-declared International Day to End Impunity, the CMFR kicked off its own end-impunity campaign in the Philippines, hoping “to promote understanding of the issues that embed
impunity in our society, and increase public awareness of the effect of impunity in the killings of journalists on journalist safety and press freedom.”
At 6 p.m. today, the CMFR, Filipino and foreign media organizations, and other stakeholders will gather at the Edsa Shrine for the Million Candles campaign to end impunity and call for justice for those felled in Maguindanao and elsewhere. Everyone can take part, says the CMFR: “Light a candle wherever you are. Illuminate the darkness and banish injustice.”
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