“Will we be holding the same forum discussing the same topic next year?”
By BENJIE OLIVEROS
The atmosphere was both cordial and charged as government officials and journalists set aside pleasantries and engaged in an honest dialogue on how to end the reign of impunity in the country and what the government is doing about it.
The occasion was a roundtable discussion on Impunity organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists last November 15, 2011 from 9:30 to 12 noon at the Annabel’s Restaurant in Tomas Morato, Quezon City. The discussion was part of a month-long campaign building up to the International Day to End Impunity on November 23, which would be marked by a march by journalists and human rights advocates.
The Philippines has earned the infamy of having the International Day to End Impunity coincide with the worst case of journalist killing in the country and the world, the Ampatuan massacre. The Ampatuan massacre, the CMFR said, is an emblematic case, meaning it reflects how impunity reigns in the country.
The panel of speakers from the government were Justice Undersecretary Leah Armamento, Assistance Secretary Lesley Jean Cordero of the Presidential Communications Operations Office, Josefina Guzman of the Supreme Court, Chief Superintendent Gil Hitosis of the Directorate on Community Relations and Police Chief Superintendent Ricardo Marquez executive officer of the Directorate on Investigation and Detective Management and head of Task Force Usig of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the CMFR, started off the discussion by giving the state of impunity in journalist killings in the country. “Of the 182 journalists killed since 1986, 123 were work-related. Of the 123 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty, only 10 cases resulted in convictions. There are currently 15 cases in court, excluding the Ampatuan massacre.”
However, De Jesus said, no masterminds have been convicted.
De Jesus said, “The culture of impunity results in the impossibility of bringing perpetrators of violations to account. It arises from the failure of the state to punish criminal or unlawful conduct. This consistent failure underlies the state of lawlessness in Philippine society.”
The immediate factors identified by the CMFR that engender the culture of impunity are the conflict-ridden society, the weak rule of law, weak judicial system, poor police investigation, lack of witnesses, inadequate support for witnesses, weakness of legal education, weakness of the Witness Protection Program (WPP), co-optation of the press, and lack of public awareness.
Justice Undersecretary Armamento enumerated the different department and administrative orders issued by the Department of Justice addressing the problem of killings and enforced disappearances. Josefina Guzman, a lawyer representing the Supreme Court in the forum related what the High Court has done since 2007: the holding of the National Consultative Summit on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances, and the promulgation of the writ of amparo and writ of habeas data.
Guzman also pointed to the following challenges hampering the efforts of the courts: overburdened courts, lack of judges and striking a balance between due process and expeditious justice.
Other factors pointed out by Guzman are: lack of competent investigators, deficient evidence gathering techniques and equipment, insufficient prosecutors and lawyers of the Public Attorney’s Office, reluctance of families of victims and witnesses, lack of funding of WPP, and sheer poverty.
Chief Superintendent Marquez, on the other hand, admitted to some weaknesses and gaps in the PNP’s efforts to curb impunity. He identified as one main obstacle, the system of appointment of provincial police directors and municipal or city police chiefs. Marquez cited that while there are good intentions in the Local Government Code, which relegates to the local government unit concerned the power to appoint provincial and municipal or city police chiefs, this system, he said, politicizes the process and engenders a political patronage system.
“If you wanted to be appointed as police chief and was able to get the appointment from the governor or mayor, what would your relationship be with the local government official concerned?” Marquez told Bulatlat.com in an interview.
“There is a need to reinvent the appointment system by amending the law,” Marquez said.
Marquez also cited as factors: the fact that prosecutors are not involved in case build-up unlike in advanced countries, the reluctance of witnesses to participate in the prosecution of cases, the legal requirements for arrests and custodial investigation, the weak legal system wherein our laws are taken advantaged of by criminals such as the helmet system for motorcycle riders, which enables killers to conceal their identity, the lack in capability of the police force in conducting scientific investigation so as not to rely too much on testimonial evidence, the lack in formal training of police investigators, 74.7 percent of whom have no formal training, and the lack in appreciation and respect for the rule of law.
Marquez said to address this, the PNP has set up its own training program, has begun the modernization of equipment – ballistic comparison, automated finger print comparison system – and is trying to develop a culture of peace and respect for human rights among the police force. He also proposed amendments to the anti-carnapping law, the registration of sim cards, and stricter gun laws.
Assistant Secretary Cordero said the Presidential Communications Operations Office has no direct role in addressing impunity.
“Do we still need a clear hardline policy statement from the President on how to end impunity?” she asked.
Whenever they are asked about what the government is doing to address impunity, Cordero said, they gather and collate information from the agencies concerned. Her office, she said, also assists agencies such as the PNP to communicate their programs to the public effectively.
While recognizing that executive and administrative orders as well as other measures were passed in the past, the journalists in the forum expressed that they do not see any decisive, urgent action on the part of the Aquino government to address impunity. “There is a disjoint between policy and action.”
Nevertheless the journalists resoundingly agreed that President Benigno Aquino III should declare emphatically a clear policy statement that his government would not tolerate and would put an end to impunity. “We need the president to say that he is listening and he is doing something about it.”
They also observed that there seems to be no one government body coordinating the efforts of the different agencies addressing impunity. “We do not even know who to ask for information about what the government is doing and where to address our concerns,” the participants in the forum said.
The general sentiment among the journalists who participated in the forum is that the Aquino government is not acting decisively and with urgency to address impunity, contrary to his campaign promise. “Will we be holding the same forum discussing the same topic next year?”
Meanwhile, the representative of Karapatan asked if the Aquino government is reviewing its counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan, which, the human rights group believes, is the reason behind the continuous extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Instead of responding to the question, the representatives from the PNP and a lawyer from the Department of National Defense defended Oplan Bayanihan.
In ending the roundtable discussion, De Jesus reiterated the recommendations put forward by the CMFR and other media groups: strengthening the WPP, formation of multi-sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, accelerate the pace of Ampatuan Massacre trial, review of the rules of court to diminish possibility of abuse and manipulation and Department of Interior and Local Government oversight on the appointment of provincial and municipal police officials