Seven years ago, 32 journalists and media workers were among 58 persons brought to a remote hill in Ampatuan, Maguindanao and murdered in broad daylight on orders of a State-backed local strongman, Andal Ampatuan Sr., who brooked no challenge on his clan’s grip on political power.
The journalists and media workers were part of a convoy of a politician wanting to file candidacy for elective office, a development that caught the news people’s eagerness to chronicle the emerging political dynamics in Maguindanao province in the run-up to the 2010 elections.
The story cost them their lives. They were mowed down in a hail of fire and steel by a band led by the local despot’s scion and namesake, Andal Jr. Many of the victims were thrown into large pits dug earlier, and buried, in an attempt to hide the unimaginable brutality.
November 23, 2009 is a day that will forever live in infamy, not only for the Philippine media community, which lost 32 of its own in what is now acknowledged as the single deadliest attack on the press on record, but also for the country’s body politic, for which the slaughter was the worst incident of electoral violence.
Today, seven years after the orgy of violence, justice remains elusive. No perpetrator has yet been convicted for the grisly crime, and the courtroom battle promises to be a protracted one.
Not even the shock and revulsion with which the carnage was greeted around the world has served to prod the government to launch sufficient and appropriate actions to ensure that this blot to the Philippines’ image be erased by the swift administration of justice to the dead and to those they left behind.
We note the measures adopted by the Philippine Supreme Court to help speed up the disposition of the case, mainly, having a dedicated trial court to hear it and assigning two pairing judges to assist the presiding judge. However, those bent on slowing the wheels of justice still find more ways to delay the process than to speed it up.
We are saddened by the observations of our Philippine colleagues that the long wait for justice has afforded the accused the benefit of buying time against culpability as in the case of the late Andal Sr. who died of heart failure last year while in detention. His family readily asserted he died innocent of multiple murder for the massacre.
As the world commemorates the Ampatuan massacre, we, journalist leaders in the Asia Pacific, urge the Philippine government to make this a time to examine the host of proposed reforms in its justice system that were dished out to address the problem of a surge in media killings. A succession of missions by the international media community has established that these proposals are geared to strengthen the system to withstand determined efforts to frustrate the cause of justice.
The current sorry state of the cause of justice in the Ampatuan massacre fuels the situation of impunity in the Philippines whereby the state is seemingly helpless at staving off the continuing phenomenon of journalists being harassed and killed, which further embolden those who seek to silence those brash enough to seek to unveil the abuses of those in power, claiming the lives of around 40 more journalists since. It would be helpful for national leaders to recognize that this state of impunity underpins the continuing attacks against journalists and media workers across the country, which in turn, is a tragedy for Philippine democracy.
Today, as we commemorate the seventh year after the Ampatuan massacre –a grim example of media repression– our Philippine colleagues are both chasing elusive justice and are feeling besieged. As if the massacre’s brutality was not enough, we see a resurgence of threats and assaults on the independent Philippine press fuelled by the open contempt and hostility of President Rodrigo Duterte who would brook absolutely no criticism of his person or his policies, especially if these touch on the orgy of bloodletting against suspected narcotics suspects which are utter disregard for the rule of law and human rights.
Seven years after the Ampatuan massacre, we continue to be anxious about the safety of our Philippine colleagues as they go about uncovering and reporting the travails of their national community.
Let this declaration be an assurance that the international media community is solidly behind them as they dare speak truth to oppressive power.
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