Massacre at Maguindanao: Press freedom is at stake in Filipino court decision

Photo:Victor Vallanueva

A verdict in the Maguindanao massacre case is expected within the month. Press freedom advocates worry that a weak ruling on the case could severely handicap Filipino journalists’ ability to cover the news.    

By Zachary Frye

On November 23, 2009, 58 people were killed in Maguindanao, the Philippines when a convoy was attacked on its way to certify a local candidate’s election status. Among the 58 people who lost their lives, 34 were journalists.

In its aftermath, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) characterized the attack as one of the worst recorded attacks on journalists in the world. A decade later, the case hasn’t been resolved. The Philippines Supreme Court accepted a request to delay a ruling on the accused until December 20, 2019.

While the accused are expected to receive a guilty verdict, it is unclear how their associates will be punished, if at all. In total, 197 people are accused of contributing to the massacre in some manner.

Youth groups from different schools and communities in Manila marched to demand accountability and justice from the Arroyo administration for the politically-motivated killing of more than 60 people in Maguindanao, including young women, journalists and lawyers in 2009.
Photo: Victor Villanueva

The killings devastated affected families, and the outcome of the case will have a big impact on Filipino journalism in the future. For Nena Santos, a lawyer for the victims of the attack, a non-guilty verdict would directly impact the quality of journalism and the safety of journalists.

“If there will be no conviction, I am sorry to say that press freedom in the Philippines is dead… because if nobody gets to jail for killing media people, where is democracy, where is press freedom?” she said.

Journalism is a dangerous business in the Philippines

CPJ’s annual Global Impunity Index ranked the Philippines fifth worst in the world. This means that the rate of journalist murders, coupled with a lack of prosecution, is particularly high. The Philippines has consistently been one of the worst-performing countries since the index was first published in 2008.

Although the influence of the Maguindanao massacre looms large in these rankings, it is hardly an isolated incident. The Philippines has a history of intimidation and violence against journalists. In the years since the massacre, 38 other journalists have been killed, including three in 2019.

The most recent killing took place on November 7, 2019.  Two assailants on motorbikes reportedly killed a local radio host, Dindo Generoso, when he was driving to work on the island of Negros.

Maria Ressa, an embattled Filipina journalist who was among those honoured as TIME magazine’s person of the year in 2018, recently likened the state of media in the Philippines to a war zone. She asserts that media safety is getting worse in her country.    

Rappler founder, journalist Maria Ressa.
Photo: Paul Papadimitriou

“This is far worse than any war zone that I’ve been in,” she said. “In a war zone, you know exactly where the threats are coming from. We’ve been living through three years of this kind of hell.”

The Duterte Administration isn’t consistent on media rights

Although the Philippines faces a serious media security problem, the Duterte Administration is woefully inconsistent on the rights of journalists. In 2016, then president-elect Duterte famously suggested that murdered journalists were corrupt or deserved violence.  

Since taking office, his administration has engaged with contradictory rhetoric and policies on media rights. In 2016, Duterte signed the Freedom of Information Order, which gives Filipinos access to executive branch records. He also created a presidential task force to combat media killings.

While the task force is working to close unresolved journalist murder cases, including Mr Generoso’s, they are also accused of using politically expedient arguments when it suits the administration’s goals.

In February 2019 Ms Ressa was arrested for libel over an article that originally ran in 2012. While many independent observers characterised the charges as politically motivated, the task force argued its right to prosecute. President Duetre has repeatedly called Ms Ressa’s Rappler publication fake news in light of its hard-hitting coverage of the administration.  

In addition, Duterte’s allies continue to engage in smear campaigns and obfuscation attempts against journalists who publish critical articles. These incidents signify a willingness to champion free speech only if it’s politically convenient for the administration.

Journalism should be seen as a bedrock for Filipino democracy

Without robust journalism, democracy suffers. When media professionals feel unable or unwilling to uncover stories and report on events with impartiality, society is left in the dark. Those with power are left to pursue political agendas with little accountability.

If people who murder journalists are left off the hook for their crimes, it will only lead to the degradation of media practices in the country. Ultimately, everyday Filipinos will pay the price. As voters go to the ballot box less informed, it makes it that much harder to make political decisions in the national interest.

These are the stakes in the Maguindanao ruling. Nearly 200 people are on trial for crimes related to the massacre, and it is imperative that each case is judged on its merits. Nobody with culpability in the murders should be let off without consequences.

The Philippines has a chance to make good on its promises to protect journalists, but it will take a robust ruling on this landmark case to put the country on the right foot. The culture of impunity needs to end. Everyone in the Filipino media deserves a chance to do their job in dignity and safety— it’s their hard work that keeps the country tuned in.