Stand Together for Justice and Press Freedom

Feb. 06, 2010

A Joint statement of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the participants of the CMFR Human Rights Reporting Seminar last January 23, 2010

TWO MONTHS have passed since the worst incident of the killing of journalists and media workers in all of media history, and the worst election-related incident of violence since elections were held in this country, occurred in the Philippines.

In the morning of November 23, 2009, allegedly led and commanded by members of the Ampatuan clan, an armed group of 100 carrying the most sophisticated weapons available blocked a convoy of journalists and women relatives of a local politician, re-routed it to a site where all were killed and buried in a mass grave. Those killed included several individuals who happened to be traversing the highway to Shariff Aguak. The convoy was headed for the provincial Commission on Elections office to file Esmael Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao province. At least fifty-seven men and women, including 31 journalists/media workers were killed. The bodies showed evidence of torture, mutilation, and rape.

As of this writing the principal suspects including some of the alleged killers and masterminds are either on trial or are being held in State facilities in Manila, Davao, and General Santos. The complexity as well as the weaknesses of the Philippine justice system will involve a lengthy and painstaking process. It will take some time before the alleged murderers get their day in court to establish their guilt or innocence.

But the weaknesses of the justice system are not limited to its technical problems, the shortfalls in personnel and resources as well as structural flaws. The judicial system is also highly politicized and is vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, including bribery and corruption.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was reported to have described the leading members of the Ampatuan as “political allies”. Other sources have pointed to the capacity of leading political clans in Maguindanao to deliver the desired votes for local as well as national candidates to assure their victory, claiming that politicians of the province assured the victory for the ruling coalition in the 2007 elections.

While the trial has started with more than the usual speed, the people, but most especially, journalists and media workers should bear in mind that they cannot let down the watch but must keep up the safeguard of careful scrutiny. Otherwise, even this case can simply be taken over by the kind of clever legal tactics which have nothing to do with justice.

To allow this to happen is to allow the gravest assault on Philippine democracy to go unpunished.  The November 23 massacre was an attack on two of its fundamental pillars: free elections and press freedom.

As we have all seen in the past several years in the life of the Republic, only a vigilant press and informed citizenry can prevent the powerful from savaging the very principles, institutions and laws that they’re supposed to be protecting and enforcing.  We therefore call on every journalist, media worker, social and political activist and everyone else concerned with this country’s rapid descent into anarchy and violence to unite with us in monitoring the conduct of the trials for the sake of maximum transparency and fairness, even as we pledge never to allow the warlords spawned by a corrupt and abusive political system to continue their rule, not only over their localities, but over the rest of the country.

We must stand together to remember those who lost their lives on November 23, 2009, two months ago, as we raise the call for justice, for authentic and free elections, and for press freedom, in this hour of Philippine democracy’s greatest need. (Posted by Davao Today)

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