IFJ Blog: A voice silenced: Gerry Ortega: A case study of impunity in the Philippines

By Rupert Di Mangilit

How impunity works in the Philippines is best demonstrated not only by the Amaptuan Massacre, but by the hundreds of other cases of media murders, among them the brazen murder of environmentalist, broadcaster and anti-corruption crusader Gerry Ortega.

Ortega was one of Palawan’s strongest voices against corruption until he was permanently silenced in the morning of 24 January 2011. He had just gone out of a store selling second-hand clothing, minutes after his final broadcast when a gunman shot him at point blank range. Ortega died on the spot.

Until his tragic death, Ortega had relentlessly criticized officials, among them former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, for the alleged misuse of the Malampaya Gas Project funds, among other local government resources.

Extrajudicial confessions by some of the suspects revealed Reyes had long planned to kill the broadcaster. These suspects said Reyes would refer to Ortega as a headache, as the radioman’s exposes were strong enough to put him and his predecessor Baham Mitra in jail for plunder.

The investigation and prosecution in Ortega’s case had the potential for a faster resolution than most cases of media murders. Authorities captured the gunman, Marlon Recamata, only minutes after he fled the crime scene. Recamata immediately confessed to the killing, and directly implicated the former Palawan governor as mastermind. However, following the preliminary investigation, a panel of prosecutors from the Justice Department absolved the Reyes consortium, including Joel Reyes’ brother and co-conspirator Mario Reyes, and four other accused—a decision that was reversed by a second panel, but nonetheless dragged the case on.

Legal tussles aside, a bigger challenge to the pursuit of justice has been the failure to arrest and indict the Reyeses, who went into hiding almost immediately after the killing.

Where are the masterminds?

In August 2014, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced a so-called “development” in the pursuit of the Reyes brothers.

Speaking to a local radio station, Aquino said authorities had established leads as to where the former government officials and now fugitives were reportedly hiding.  While it sounded good on paper, the Reyeses have yet to be caught and surfaced again nearly three months after the President’s pronouncement.

While the Reyeses have remained scot-free, one of the accused, Valentin “Percival” Lecias, already died. Meanwhile, Dennis Aranas, an accomplice-turned-witness, likewise died before he could even testify.

A shameful track record

Ortega’s case reflects the sorry state of journalist killings in the Philippines since 1986.

While 171 media workers were murdered in cold blood, a dismal 16 convictions have been made. Among those who have been sentenced are the small fry behind the murders — the gunmen, the lookouts, the drivers — but never the masterminds.

In the last four years under the Aquino presidency, 32 journalists, including Ortega, have lost their lives.

Such a dismal record clearly shows the administration’s lack of a firm resolve in ensuring the safety of journalists and securing justice for the victims.

Worse still, are the public statements that have added insult to injury.

In a speech in Brussels, earlier this year Aquino responded to the usual round of reporter questions on the Philippines’ horrific journalist death toll by saying: “Did they die because they were investigative journalists? Were they exercising their profession in a responsible manner, living up to journalistic ethics? Or did they die because of other reasons?”

It’s exactly these sorts of statements, coupled with the failure of state agencies under him to satisfyingly prosecute and convict the perpetrators of attacks against journalists that helps create an atmosphere where impunity thrives.

The attitude of indifference towards media murders only emboldens others to resort to barefaced attempts to silence journalists and other advocates of transparency and accountability, like threats, physical assault, and killings — the ultimate form of censorship.

It should not come as a surprise that after Ortega, scores of his colleagues have also met equally violent, untimely deaths.