“Taken together, the acts of commission and omission by the Aquino administration betray sheer lip service to justice and press freedom, and a dangerous tendency to sacrifice both to the exigencies of power.” – media groups
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Carrying 153 coffin-shaped cartons, journalists marched from Welcome Rotunda toward the foot of Chino Roces (formerly Mendiola) bridge to mark the third anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre, Nov. 23.
The coffins bore the names of slain journalists, including the 32 among the 58 victims of the massacre that took place in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009. The rest of the coffins represented those killed in line of duty since 1986, the year of the so-called restoration of democracy. Fourteen journalists have been killed under the Aquino administration, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The numbers prompted the Southeast Asian Press Alliance to name the Philippines, supposedly the region’s most vibrant democracy, as the most dangerous place for journalists. Nov. 23 is also the International Day to End Impunity.
Relatives of the victims are beginning to lose hope as the trial drags on. “In this country, if you are poor, it is impossible to get justice,” Catherine Nuñez, 50, mother of slain UNTV cameraman Victor Nuñez, told Bulatlat.com in an interview.
Media groups lamented that 99 of the 197 suspects remain free, only two of the eight Ampatuan clan members – the primary suspects in the carnage– have been arraigned. Some witnesses have been killed. Some relatives of the victims have fled their hometowns after receiving death threats.
Nuñez, who flew from Cagayan de Oro City to join the protest in Manila, shed tears as she lit a candle for her son who died at the age of 24.
“President Aquino promised that before his term ends, we would obtain justice,” Nuñez said in Filipino. “I still hope he would fulfill that promise.”
In a unity statement, media groups lamented that the Aquino administration and other major political parties in the country have embraced the Ampatuan clan. At least 72 Ampatuan clan members are candidates in the May 2013 elections, nine of them running under the Liberal Party, and 34 others under the United Nationalist Alliance of Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Those who signed the statement are the Center for Community Journalism and Development, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, NUJP, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Philippine Press Institute and University of the Philippines-College of Mass Communication (UP-CMC).
Speaking at the protest rally, Malou Mangahas, PCIJ executive director, said the financial and power infrastructure of a big number of candidates from the Ampatuan clan are still intact.. A PCIJ report showed that Andal Ampatuan Jr. has managed to sell eight prime properties despite the government’s pledge to forfeit the wealth of the Ampatuans.
“The Aquino administration’s embrace of a clan long known for warlordism only highlights how state policy can fuel impunity,” the media groups said.
For her part, Edita Tiamzon, widow of UNTV driver Daniel Tiamzon, said the last three years have been difficult for the family. Hoping to start a new life, Tiamzon and her two children transferred residence after the incident. “I think we could only move on if we get the justice that we have been waiting for,” Tiamzon told Bulatlat.com.
Media groups also recalled that President Benigno S. Aquino III, in August 2010, promised five crucial reforms to help speed up the quest for justice. Among these were improvements to the Witness Protection Program, the formation of quick-response teams to investigate media killings, measures to speed up the pace of the trial, and a review of the Rules of Court to mitigate possible abuse and manipulation.
In its statement, the CMFR said Aquino has not only ignored the recommendations but “demonstrated antipathy in both words and deeds to the press and the media.”
The CMFR noted that the third anniversary of the massacre is also occurring in the context not only of the failure of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill to pass Congress, but also of the insistence among certain congressmen of passing either a separate Right of Reply (ROR) bill or an ROR rider in an FOI bill. “The campaign for the decriminalization of libel has not only stalled; it has been weakened by the provision on online libel in the Cybercrime Prevention Act,” the media watchdog said.
The group also noted that Aquino “has so far done little” with his promise to disband the private armies that have been so instrumental in the killing of journalists not only in Ampatuan town but also in over a hundred places throughout the country.
“Taken together, the acts of commission and omission by the Aquino administration betray sheer lip service to justice and press freedom, and a dangerous tendency to sacrifice both to the exigencies of power,” media groups said.
In a separate statement, human rights group Karapatan said that three years after the Amparuan Massacre, more massacres took place under the Aquino administration.
The group cited the Kananga massacre, where botanist Leonard Co and his two companions were killed; the Mancera massacre in Labo, Camarines Norte that killed farmer Benjamin Mancera, 54, and his two sons, Michael, 10, and Richard, aged seven; and recently, the Capion massacre that claimed the lives of a Blaan mother and her two sons.
The group said the victims in these massacres are among the 114 victims of extrajudicial killings documented by Karapatan.
“Today’s commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity not only highlights the Aquino government’s failure to end impunity but more so, how the government perpetuates impunity,” the group said.
Karapatan deplored that members of the military and its adjunct paramilitary groups involved in the killings have remained unpunished.
Students and faculty members from UP-CMC, Polytechnic University of the Philippines and student journalists under the banner of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) joined the protest action.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre, members of the CEGP-Southern Tagalog held simultaneous candle lighting in several universities including University of the Philippines Los Baños, Cavite State University, PUP-Lopez and Laguna College of Business and Administration.