In the course of his visit to several European countries, President Benigno Aquino III rejected, during a forum in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, what he called “blanket statements”—and proceeded to make some blanket statements of his own.
Mr. Aquino was responding to the claims of protesters and some forum participants that human rights violations including extrajudicial killings have been continuing during his administration despite his 2010 campaign promise to put a stop to them, and that the government’s counter-insurgency program endangered people’s rights and lives.
“Those are blanket statements and we don’t necessarily agree with them,” he said during the forum. “It is not our policy to encourage or even abet transgressions of the law,” he continued, and claimed that his administration has been investigating allegations of human rights violations.
He cited the arrest of former Philippine Army Major-General Jovito Palparan, whom he described as “one of the foremost human rights violators or accused, alleged human rights violators (sic)” who is now in custody and “undergoing trial.”
Mr. Aquino did not mention that Palparan, accused of, among other crimes, the abduction, torture and enforced disappearance of University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, is now in the custody of his friends in the Philippine Army. Thanks to an apparently acquiescent court, the person the media calls “the Butcher” has been transferred from the Bulacan municipal jail to the Armed Forces of the Philippines headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.
Palparan’s guilt or innocence is up to the courts to decide. But not even Mr. Aquino can deny that the “special treatment” he’s currently getting leads to suspicions that it’s in preparation for his eventual exoneration—and, who knows, even his being declared a hero, as the retired generals of the AFP and his cohorts have been suggesting.
Impunity—the exemption from punishment of wrong doers, especially the killers of political activists, environmentalists, reformist local officials, judges, lawyers, clergymen and journalists—in fact reigns as much during the current administration as in that of Mr. Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
That the worst perpetrators of human rights violations and other crimes have been literally getting away with murder is a fact Mr. Aquino has denied and keeps on denying despite the evidence.
Only last August 29, he insisted that most of the journalists killed in the Philippines were not killed in the line of duty. He was equally adamant—or willfully clueless—in Brussels. Mr. Aquino repeated what he’s been saying about the killing of journalists, declaring that not all journalists killed in the Philippines including those slain during his watch were killed for their work. In almost the same breath, he implied that some of those killed were not responsible journalists and were killed for other reasons.
Mr. Aquino provided no proof to support these equally “blanket” statements. No journalists’ or media advocacy group has denied that some of the journalists who have been killed were killed as a result of personal disputes unrelated to their work as journalists. But there is no denying that more than 50 percent of those killed were slain for their work. Meticulous checking and cross-checking, interviews with witnesses, families, the local journalism and media community, even with the local police, have established that 145 of those killed out of a total of 217 since 1986 were killed in the line of duty.
Minimizing the number of journalists killed—the Philippine National Police insists that “only 40” have been killed, and only since 2001—despite agreement among both Philippine and international press freedom watch groups that the number is more than a hundred, makes the Aquino government less accountable. But it is completely false, and even more importantly, instills among the population and the police the sense that the problem is not as bad as international press freedom watch organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists characterize it.
The implication, evident in both the police’s and Mr.Aquino’s statements on subject, that being an irresponsible practitioner somehow justifies a journalist’s being killed is even more dangerous, for reasons only the administration seems unable to fathom.
As far as the killing of journalists and the human rights situation in the Philippines during Mr. Aquino’s watch are concerned, listen to what the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch has to say:
“The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. In 2013, seven journalists were killed, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a Manila media advocacy group… According to local monitors, 18 (the number has since risen to 25) journalists have been killed since Aquino became president…
“While there has been a notable decline in extrajudicial killings under the Aquino administration, they remain a serious problem and rarely result in a prosecution.
“Killings by ‘death squads’ in urban centers including Metro Manila, Davao City, and Zamboanga City, remain a serious problem. The victims are frequently petty criminals, drug dealers and street children. By all accounts these killings largely go uninvestigated and there are no reports of death squad members being prosecuted…
“Paramilitary forces controlled by the Philippine government and military committed serious human rights abuses in 2013. Alleged militia members working with the military murdered Benjie Planos, a tribal leader in Agusan del Sur province, on September 13. (Dozens of them are also implicated in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.)
“President Aquino has not fulfilled his 2010 campaign promise to revoke Executive Order 546, which local officials cite to justify providing arms to their ‘private armies.’”
HRW also released in May this year a well-documented report on the existence of a death squad carrying out extrajudicial killings in Davao del Norte with the alleged support of local officials. The HRW report provided detail after detail on the activities of what it called the “Tagum Death Squad,” and said that it was responsible for 298 extrajudicial killings of alleged “undesirables” including children from 2007 to 2013, for which no one has been prosecuted.
Would Mr. Aquino, the police and other agencies and officials of an administration that pledged to end human rights violations including extrajudicial killings describe these as “blanket statements”?
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Malacañang Photo Bureau.