58 dead, 5 years, 0 justice: IFJ condemns Aquino’s record on impunity

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is accusing the Aquino government of a failure to protect the lives of journalists in the Philippines. The IFJ conducted a mission in the country this week marking the 5th anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre.

The Philippines is today the focus of a global campaign by international media and human rights groups as journalists and advocates commemorate the horrific loss of life that took place when a convoy was ambushed in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. The massacre was allegedly orchestrated and executed by members of the Ampatuan clan in concert with members of the Philippines National Police. Many of the bodies were buried in mass pre-dug graves. 

The IFJ mission notes that there are still 84 suspects who have been charged but remain at large due to ineffective law enforcement and a lack of will to apprehend them despite the fact that many are members of the Philippines National Police or Civilian Volunteer Organisation members (paramilitary members).
 
The IFJ, which represents more than 600,000 journalists in 134 countries, has returned to the Philippines with an international delegation to investigate the government’s efforts to secure justice for the 58 victims of the massacre – including 32 journalists. The IFJ has conducted several missions to the Philippines in the wake of the massacre and repeatedly made recommendations and requests to the government.

President Benigno Aquino’s failure to deliver a secure environment and enforce a respect for basic human rights cultivates an atmosphere that is deadly for journalists in the country, the IFJ says.

IFJ Asia-Pacific acting director, Jane Worthington, says: “Not even four and a half years into his term, a further 33 journalists have now been murdered as result – more than the massacre itself.

“The Philippines is undoubtedly an epicentre of impunity and this massacre puts the world’s attention on the inability of governments to investigate crimes against journalists. This was the single largest slaughter of media workers and five years on not a single conviction has been recorded.”

The IFJ mission comprises four international representatives as well as a strong contingent from the IFJ’s affiliate in the country, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The mission has visited the massacre site, spoken to the families of the victims and members of the local media community in southern Mindanao and is currently meeting with police, justice and government representatives including Justice Secretary Leila De Lima.

Australian representative Mike Dobbie, who has led all the missions since 2009, said: "It’s clear there has been little progress in ensuring justice for the massacre victims, while the suspects in the crime continue to make efforts to stall the case at every turn.

“It is time the Philippines Government shows the leadership that the international community has been demanding. At the same time, political expediency must not thwart the proper legal process from being fully observed.”

The IFJ mission has key concerns and will issue a full report on December 23 – the five year and one month anniversary:

·       A climate of fear continues to pervade southern Mindanao, and has led to self-censorship and safety fears for local media;

·       Media organisations have failed to address the safety issues affecting their staff;

·       Witnesses in the case remain vulnerable with one being killed in the past week taking to at least four who have been murdered before giving evidence in the trial;

·       Five years on and the families of the victims continue to suffer financially and psychologically and more must be done to support them particularly as they have been subject to offers of bribes to drop their civil actions in the case.

Schave De Rozario, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists Malaysia as well as a representative of South East Asia Journalists Union - SEAJU (under the IFJ) sees that these cold blooded murders of journalists seems to be a growing solution resorted to by politically linked groups, the powerful and corrupt in the South-East Asian region.

“The scourge of impunity across the region as a result of this massacre indicates that these forces in the region believe that it is OK to kill journalists and for politicians to do nothing. The region needs action and governments must move to protect media freedom.”

Philippa McDonald, vice president of the journalists union in Australia (the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, MEAA) and a director of Oceania’s Media, Safety and Solidarity Fund says: “It’s heartbreaking to witness the grief and the trauma of the families of the victims, five years on”.

“Children are growing up without a breadwinner, families are facing dreadful financial hardship and they’re suffering enormously. Their faith that justice will be delivered is severely shaken.”  

In meetings yesterday President Aquino’s Undersecretary for Legislative, Policy and Legal Affairs in the Presidential Communications Operations Office Jess Anthony Q. Yu undertook that the President would respond publicly today to the mission’s concerns.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary De Lima acknowledged the failings of the judicial system. She told the mission: "I am not going to deny there is no longer a culture of impunity in our country. There is still a culture of impunity and that is something that we're trying to address and eradicate."
 
The mission is encouraged by her remarks that financial support for the families of the victims is on her agenda and she is intending to raise it with President Aquino.

The IFJ mission report will be released on December 23 2014.