Maguindanao verdict a win for free press despite lingering issues

Photo:Victor Villanueva

A strong verdict in the Philippines’ journalist massacre case is a step in the right direction, but Filipino journalists still face an uphill battle.

By Zachary Frye

On December 19, 2019, a Filipino judge sentenced the leaders of the powerful Ampatuan clan to life in prison over their roles in the murder of 58 people – 32 of them journalists – just over a decade ago.

The killings took place after a local politician in the southern province of Maguindanao, Esmael Mangudadatu, entered a race for the governorship that was held by the Ampatuan patriarch.

In late November 2009, some 200 gunmen attacked a convoy carrying journalists, lawyers and the wife of the candidate. The legal case against the accused was equally marred by violence. Over the years, three witnesses were murdered.

Out of the 197 people charged in the case, over 40 received prison sentences. The charged include police officers, militiamen and Ampatuan family members.

The remaining suspects were let off due to weak or uncorroborated evidence tying them to the murders. While clearly a win for the free press and justice in the face of impunity, journalists in the Philippines will continue to face an uphill battle in the fight for safety and security.

Victims’ families get some closure, but many involved escaped justice

Over 50 of the accused were acquitted of any wrongdoing. While the main perpetrators received life sentences, over half of those accused of involvement with the crime will get off without punishment.

While it is important that each suspect was investigated and their complicity evaluated based on the merits of the case, the high number of acquittals is noteworthy.

Before the verdict, Mary Grace Morales, a 43-year-old mother of three whose sister and husband were killed in the massacre, made it clear that she was hoping for a more comprehensive ruling.

“If anyone gets out, even if it’s just one person, it will hurt. It’s not fair,” she said.

Still, it seems that many of the victims’ family members are content with the trial’s outcome.

“We’re all happy with the decision even if not everyone was convicted,” said Jergin Dela Cruz Malabanan, 26. She was a teenager when her mother was killed in the attack, leaving her to raise her siblings and newborn baby alone.

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.
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.
Photo: Victor Villanueva

In addition to the acquittals, some 80 massacre suspects remain at large, potentially putting victims’ families at further risk.

Press freedom is still in danger in the Philippines

After the verdict, the Filipino government hailed the decision as a monumental victory that could absolve the country of its label as one of the worst places in the world for journalists.

While a step in the right direction, the verdict is not a reflection of improved working conditions for journalists across the archipelago.

President Rodrigo Duterte continues to bash journalists at press conferences and threatens to shut down certain outlets for critical coverage.

On December 30, 2019, during a visit to earthquake victims in North Cotabato, Duterte urged the ABS-CBN media franchise to sell their company ahead of contract negotiations.

“If I were you, I would sell it. It’s only now that Filipinos would be able to get back at your wrongdoings. And I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times [sic] forever,” he added.

Many Filipino journalists also report incidents of threats and harassment while doing their jobs.

Ed Lingao, a Filipino broadcast journalist, described the harassment and public derision the media faces. “They always say I’m fake news. Anything that’s critical is fake, right?”

In response to a question on the specific kinds of violence directed at him, he said, [critics say they will] “blow my head off or bury me alive.”

In a separate case, another journalist was killed earlier this year in Mindanao after hosting an evening radio programme.

Duterte’s government is also wielding the judiciary as a silencing weapon. Media outlets that criticise the president get into legal trouble. A litany of charges against Rappler, a news outlet critical of the Duterte administration, have been lodged in recent years. Many independent observers characterize the charges as biased.

Still, the outcome of the trial suggests that impunity doesn’t have an unmitigated foothold in the Philippines. Many problems remain, but at least media practitioners and the families of the victims can rest knowing that there are consequences for senseless violence in their country, even for those in power.

Unfortunately, it will take more than one court case, no matter how big, to change the everyday reality for journalists in the Philippines. Abasement of the media is ingrained, and actively promoted, by the political elite. Only an overhaul in the political culture and climate of intimidation can make amends and avoid a repeat of Maguindanao.