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.
But as significant and as unprecedented as the verdict is, it does not mean the end of the culture of impunity. Despite the Duterte regime’s claims — and its shamelessly taking credit for it — neither is it likely to halt the harassments and threats against, and even the killing of journalists.
Promulgated December 19, 2019, the decision of Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes convicting those who planned and carried out the murder of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers is an important step in that direction. It can help discourage those who would silence journalists from doing what the Ampatuans and their band of police, military and paramilitary thugs did. But it does not eliminate those factors that have made the killings and impunity possible and practically inevitable.
Among them are the weaknesses of the justice system particularly at the community level where there is a shortfall of prosecutors and where, in some cases, the prosecutors available cannot do their jobs out of fear for their lives. There is also the collusion between local officials, the police, and the military and the paramilitaries under its command, and the dominance of warlord rule in many localities. Ending impunity demands, among other measures, the dismantling of warlord power and the local dynasties’ use of public security forces as their private armies. Strengthening the justice system by assuring its independence and providing the funding and the prosecutors it needs to enable it to effectively prosecute wrong-doers is also an urgent imperative.
In 2009 civil society and journalists’organizations urged the dismantling of the paramilitaries in the aftermath of the Ampatuan Massacre because of the involvement of the military-trained and -funded Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVO) in the worst case of election-related violence in the Philippines and the worst attack on journalists in human history. But the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presidency did nothing about it, and neither did the Benigno Aquino III administration that succeeded it in June, 2010. To both regimes, the use of the paramilitaries to augment police and military forces in their war against the New People’s Army (NPA) and other armed groups was a priority over the need to stop local warlords’ using them against their rivals and even against journalists. Given its enshrinement of the use of force as its first and last resort in dealing with the country’s problems as well as its critics, among them independent journalists, the Duterte regime is unlikely to act differently.
And yet it is the government that has the means, the Constitutional responsibility and the power to stop not only the paramilitaries’ serving as the private armies of the warlord clans dominant in a number of provincial communities. Government can also curb the political dynasties’ recruitment of police and military forces as their personal bodyguards and security forces for their fiefdoms, and address the shortage of prosecutors at the community level. Even more significantly can government help curb impunity by encouraging and protecting free expression and press freedom as part of its responsibility under a Constitutional order that explicitly prohibits their abridgment.
Despite the Constitution, press freedom and the right to free expression have nevertheless been under siege in this country for decades, among other reasons because those responsible for the attacks against them have escaped punishment. The phrase “culture of impunity” was first used by the New York-based press freedom watch group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2003 to explain the killing of journalists in the Philippines. But wrong-doers and criminals have been getting away with various offenses including murder since the country’s independence was recognized by the United States in 1946.
It can even be argued that the culture of impunity goes farther back in Philippine history. Instead of being punished, the killers of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna prospered and were acclaimed as heroes. Those in command of the US troops who razed entire communities and killed thousands during the Philippine-American War also got away with it. Some of the traitors who collaborated with Japanese occupation forces during World War II became the country’s first leaders after 1946
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos became President and eventually amassed a huge fortune out of public funds that even now has eluded recovery. Neither has the gang of military and Constabulary cutthroats responsible for the abductions, torture, rapes, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings during the Marcos terror regime been punished for their crimes. Rodrigo Duterte himself has bragged about killing someone during his younger days, and has even admitted encouraging the Davao Death Squad responsible for the murder of hundreds of alleged criminals including children, but was nevertheless elected President in 2016.
Deeply embedded in the country’s past and present, the culture of impunity is specially evident in the killing of journalists and media workers. Most of the killers of the journalists slain since 1986, and the masterminds behind them, have escaped prosecution and punishment. The members of the Ampatuan clan who have been found guilty of planning and executing the Ampatuan Massacre could be the exceptions among the masterminds — but could still get away with murder, depending on the outcome of their appeal in the higher courts.
The entire country and press community must closely watch future developments as those convicted by Judge Solis-Reyes appeal her verdict in the higher courts, and quite possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. The final decision on this case, and its implementation, will be crucial to the defense of press freedom and the need to put an end to the impunity that has encouraged the use of violence against the independent press and other truth-tellers.
Because government is unwilling to take the steps needed to do either, the press needs the protection of the citizenry to stop the killing of journalists and to dismantle the culture of impunity. Much of the public has met the killings with little outrage, among other reasons because they are either unaware of the value to their lives of the work journalists do, or because they have been convinced by its detractors in and out of government that the press does them more harm than good, and that its practitioners are corrupt purveyors of false and biased information.
The journalism community must put its own house in order by demonstrating through honest, accurate, fair and relevant reporting, commentary and analysis the value and role of the press in truth-telling as indispensable to democratic discourse and to the people’s lives. By doing so it can earn the protection of the citizenry from those who would silence the independent press by killing journalists and who usually get away with it.
Only by waging it on several fronts can the campaign against the killings and the culture of impunity be won. Getting the guilty punished is an important front in that battle. But the press community’s doing everything it can to be better at its tasks is also one of the many fronts in stopping the killings and ending impunity.