THE phrase is of recent vintage, but the reality behind it isn’t. Like most of the horrors that afflict Filipinos, the culture of impunity, or exemption from punishment so common it has become routine, has been a fact of their lives since the datus betrayed their own people by collaborating with the Spaniards in the conquest of these isles.

In the course of that bloody process and after, entire barangay were put to the torch and their inhabitants to the sword. Not only did those responsible escape punishment; they were also rewarded, and their deeds hailed as part of God’s plan and work.

Three hundred years later, the US colonizers did the conquistadores better: from destroying barangay they went on to destroy entire provinces, among them Samar, where ten-year-old children were counted among the “insurgents” who were fair game for killing. For doing that task efficiently and well, the perpetrators were commended and their officers promoted.

Under the clever cover of “tutelage for self-government,” the process continued as the remnants of the Revolution were suppressed, among other means by hanging, while those others who rebelled were jailed by the agents of the colonial state. Impunity was both the means and the consequence of systemic injustice in a society that, as the 20th century progressed, remained mired in inequality, to protest which imprisonment and death were the rewards.

About the Japanese period what more could be said except that in the regime of murder it put in place, it stripped away the façade of justice that had characterized US occupation, while pretending to have erected a sphere of equal prosperity? By the end of the Second World War, with landlord and foreign rule restored, impunity continued — an unbroken, tangled thread in the skein of Philippine history. Against the rebellion injustice and misery continued to provoke and sustain, death remained among the State’s favored responses, and impunity the consequence for its agents.

During the Marcos regime impunity became open, though unannounced State policy. The mastermind in the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. is until today officially unestablished, although presumed in the minds of those who still remember to have escaped punishment either by dying, or, with the ample use of the money they stole from the treasury, by campaigning for and winning public office, from whose heights they proclaim their innocence.

But hundreds more besides Aquino — whether labor or student leader, farmer or priest, journalist or human rights worker — were slain in either the streets, the factories and the countryside, or in military torture chambers and detention centers. Their deaths to this day remain unavenged, although to that already lengthy list have been added, since Marcos rule ended in 1986, the names of over a hundred journalists and media workers as well as those of over a thousand human rights defenders, clergymen, farmers, workers, environmentalists, students, judges, lawyers, even reformist local officials.

If the culture of impunity persists, it persists because justice is a luxury the Philippine ruling system cannot afford, and injustice among its means of dominance. The Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009, which occurred a thousand days ago, and is well on its way to its third anniversary, was as inevitable as a local tyrant’s taking bribes from illegal loggers. Not only were the likely masterminds certain that they were beyond State retribution because the State supported them. They were also the State in their neck of the Philippine woods.

The impunity of those responsible for past killings was equally part of the context that encouraged the planners and perpetrators to kill 58 men and women, of whom 32 were journalists and media workers, for the singular offense of daring to register the candidacy of their political opponent, and, on the part of the journalists, of observing the process to report it.

The Massacre was all of a piece with the traditions of Philippine partisan politics, a contest whose results, being predetermined by local warlords, may be totally predictable, but are nevertheless waged with equally predictable violence.

The involvement of journalists was as familiar. Ninety percent of the journalists killed in the line of duty, a 2006 study by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility found, were covering — reporting and commenting on — either local corruption and politics, or the activities of criminal syndicates.

For its twin assault on two of the most vital pillars of the democracy this country claims to be — the free press and free elections — demolishing the centuries-old culture of impunity, or at least beginning the process by swiftly penalizing the perpetrators and planners of the one Massacre that has become the test case of whether justice is still possible in this archipelago of tears, is imperative. But there is little to indicate that that will happen.

The signs indeed say otherwise, and it’s easy enough to see why. State responsibility was first of all writ large in the Massacre when it occurred in 2009. The immediate suspects were members of the ruling dynasty in Maguindanao. They had also prospered because they were the reliable allies of the Arroyo administration, whose watch will be best remembered for the surge in the killing of journalists and activists since 2001.

Campaigning in 2010, then candidate Benigno Aquino III pledged an end to the killing of journalists and to the extrajudicial killings so characteristic of the Arroyo administration. He also vowed an end to human rights violations. But a thousand days after the Massacre, the promised State initiatives to stop EJKs the killing of journalists by demonstrating that the killers will be punished is more evident in their absence.

Both the court trying the Ampatuans and the prosecution have allowed the trial to drag on, the former by giving due course to the dozens of motions and petitions of the defense, while the latter has itself filed motion upon motion in a race for who can better exploit legal loopholes and the technicalities of the Rules of Court.

Only some of the accused have been indicted. While the petition for the dropping of charges against him by a member of the Ampatuan clan has been decided, hearings on the bail petitions of other accused individuals are ongoing. Dozens of those accused of involvement in a crime unprecedented for its brutality even in these isles of fear are still to be arrested.

The trial on the merits has yet to resume. At least two witnesses for the prosecution have been murdered, responsibility for which no one has been identified, and which are therefore likely to be followed by other murders. Some of the relatives of the slain, meanwhile, say they’ve been offered bribes running into the millions in exchange for their withdrawing from the prosecution of the case.

The glacial progress of the Massacre trial has demonstrated not only how truly justice delayed is indeed the equivalent of its being denied. It has also shown how historically and currently elusive justice is and has been in a society where the rule of a handful of families is expressed in, among others, their control over virtually every institution including the justice system.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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