THE Ampatuan Massacre, the first anniversary of which journalist and media advocacy groups marked last Tuesday, November 23, achieved what had been exceedingly difficult to accomplish before it occurred. It provoked outrage among a people long desensitized by the levels of violence that characterize daily life in these islands, and put on trial a justice system that, with hardly anyone noticing, was failing to provide the value its official name promised.
When the Massacre exploded in the national consciousness, blame for the continuing killing of journalists as well as political activists had long been laid at its door — both for its weakness at the local level and its vulnerability to political manipulation at the center — as well as on police and military collusion with the killers and even direct involvement as assassins.
Most Filipinos may have already resigned themselves to living with the severely damaged and compromised police and military establishments, to which they assign the same levels of vexation as typhoons, dengue and other afflictions. But they still harbor some hope for some agencies of government, among them the Department of Justice and the system of which it is a part. They’re watching if the justice system can redeem itself by bringing to justice the killers and masterminds of the November 23, 2009 Massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists.
But the Massacre was not only the gravest threat so far to free expression, it is also a reminder of the contradictions that afflict what passes for democracy in this country, and a warning to both the Philippine press and the entire country.
The pockets of warlord power that have been allowed to flourish in at least a hundred localities in this so-called democracy contradict such basic tenets of democratic existence as the right to life. In places like Maguindanao, warlords decide not only the outcome of elections; as the testimony of the witnesses in the trial of those accused of masterminding the Ampatuan Massacre and carrying it out reveal, they also decide who lives or dies.
For the Philippine press, the Massacre demonstrated that the power of the written and spoken word that many assume protects journalists is a dangerous illusion. The 32 journalists and media workers killed had accompanied the wife and kin of the then candidate for Maguindanao governor in filing his certificate of candidacy on the assumption that they were themselves immune from harm and would even provide the group a mantle of protection, in stubborn denial that before the massacre, 81 journalists had been killed in the line of duty since 1986.
It was the worst single incident of violence against journalists, whether in the Philippines or anywhere else. But the Ampatuan Massacre occurred in the context of the culture of impunity that has persisted in the Philippines, and which has encouraged not only the killing of journalists, but also of political activists, judges, lawyers, human rights workers and other citizens working for change in a society that desperately needs it. Dismantling that culture, journalist and media advocacy as well as human rights groups have pointed out to the point of weariness, is premised on punishing the killers and masterminds in the killing of journalists and political activists.
The sheer number of journalists killed in the Ampatuan Massacre, and the perils of warlord rule it demonstrated, have made the apprehension, trial and punishment of the killers and masterminds especially crucial. If its perpetrators are not punished, not only will it prove once more that warlord rule cannot be uprooted; it will also send the strongest signal yet to those who cannot tolerate free expression, whether exercised by journalists or by political activists, that they can literally get away with murder.
And yet the progress of the trial of those accused of planning and carrying out the Ampatuan Massacre has been agonizingly slow, once more demonstrating that the complexities of the legal system meant to protect the innocent have been effectively functioning in behalf of the powerful, whether they’re murderers, rapists, or kidnappers. Many of the rules governing court proceedings were put in place 50 years ago and need to be amended, or thrown out all together. Under existing conditions, it has been predicted that the trial of the accused in the Massacre may take a decade or more.
These conditions impose on the press the responsibility of keeping the Massacre and the trial of those accused of it in the public mind. But both the media and the citizenry must also seek and support amendments to the rules of court proposed by progressive lawyers so as to accelerate the judicial processes for the sake of that elusive goal, justice.
Of even more fundamental import is the disbandment of the private warlord armies of which members of government security forces are often a part, whose existence has progressively eroded the capacity of the justice system to prosecute the killers, and which have themselves been implicated not only in the Ampatuan Massacre but also in scores of journalist and extrajudicial killings.
Only the government that has allowed these groups to flourish can disband them. It was after all the military that organized and armed the so-called civilian volunteer organizations and other paramilitary groups that have become part of the warlord armies. But the Aquino III government has refused to disband the private armies by disbanding the paramilitary groups the military has organized and armed because they supposedly help hold the Moro and other insurgent groups at bay. Ironically, however, by spinning out of control, it is these very groups that are progressively weakening the state they’re supposed to protect.
That itself is one more contradiction the Massacre has emphasized. But of even more interest is the possibility that Mr. Aquino isn’t too eager to dismantle private armies because some of his relatives also preside over their own, particularly over a “Yellow Army” commanded by certain uncles and manned by, among other elements, “civilian volunteers”. That at least would not be a contradiction, but on the contrary, only consistent with the emerging state policy of ignoring the call to disband the paramilitaries.