The guilty verdict on some of the principals responsible for the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre is the first instance in which members of a powerful warlord clan have been convicted as masterminds in the killing of journalists in the Philippines. No masterminds and only14 assassins had previously been convicted of the killing of the remaining 133 journalists out of the 165 who have been murdered for their work since 1986.
“Philippine elections,” says the British publication The Economist, “are always local and thuggish.”
The “thuggish” part every Filipino is, or should be, familiar with. That’s the “guns and goons” in the “guns, goons, and gold” equation that too often decides the outcome of elections in those places where the police are either too weak to prevent voters from being intimidated, or are themselves among the thugs in the pay of the local warlord. These are the hoods responsible for the violence that characterizes most Philippine elections (but which the police always describe as “orderly and peaceful”). At least vote-buying, or the “gold” part that comes in both cash and kind, helps redistribute, rather than death and injury, the wealth that’s been stolen from the people.
The Maguindanao or Ampatuan Massacre, the third anniversary of which journalists’ and media advocacy groups are commemorating today across the country, was not primarily focused on attacking the 32 journalists and media workers who were killed in the worst incident of violence against the media in history.
The intention of the masterminds behind the killing of a total of 52 men and women was to prevent the filing of Esmael Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for governor. The Massacre was “political” in the narrow sense that politics is understood among the families and clans that contend for power in this archipelago of tears.
NOTHING is impossible, said President Benigno Aquino III last Monday during his third State of the Nation Address, while demonstrating in the same speech that certain things are just not possible in an Aquino SONA.
Apparently it’s not possible for Mr. Aquino to mention “Human Rights violations,” “extrajudicial killings,” “Freedom of Information,” “Ampatuan Massacre,” “the killing of journalists” or even “Reproductive Health” in his address. And it’s probably not because of the limitations of his vocabulary.
WHEN THE Ampatuan Town Massacre of November 23, 2009 occurred and its brutal details were known, it provoked attempts at self-examination among many media advocacy and journalists’ groups, and even in some of the newspapers and broadcast networks that for years had been ignoring the killing of journalists.
Among the questions these groups and some communication academics asked then, and have since been asking, is whether the Massacre has imposed on the media such supposedly additional responsibilities as providing more information than the daily news agenda makes available, and analysis and interpretation beyond the usual front-page, op-ed and evening news menu of politics and scandal.
The Massacre has since become an international symbol of the perils journalists face in failing and failed states (international media watch and press freedom groups have declared November 23, 2011 the International Day to End Impunity). It was not only election-related. It was also the worst attack in Philippine history on the press as a necessary institution of democracy.