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CONCRETE ACTION NEEDED TO STOP THE KILLINGS: An Open Letter to President Benigno Aquino III

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As the nation takes its annual Holy Week retreat, the advocates for justice for slain journalists and press freedom protection recall their hopes in your assumption to power and your promise for renewal and change.

You campaigned not only on a promise to fight corruption, but also to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Your appointment of former Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima as Secretary of Justice sent a strong signal to the country that your officials would help fulfill the promise you made in a number of your speeches: that you will put closure to human rights killings and hold the murderers accountable. In a speech on the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December last year, you recalled how your own family had been victims of the human rights violations at the hands of a repressive government, along with other Filipinos.

But those of us who have championed the cause of slain journalists are alarmed; there are today more assassins and masterminds who have so far escaped punishment than the few who have been tried and convicted. For so long as this impunity reigns, all Filipinos, not only journalists and media workers, but ordinary citizens as well, will continue to be at risk.

A number of these killings involve local government officials and officers of the Philippine National Police. We are anxious because you have not taken any significant action to show political will to put an end to impunity and to launch the presidential initiatives needed to begin the process of change.

We realize that the barriers to justice may be so deeply embedded in the very system of governance, including the courts. We know that court supervision is beyond executive prerogative. But the power and capability of the president resonates in different ways and we still believe that in our system, executive action can have a positive impact on the conduct of the judicial system, as it does on the legislature.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, Inc. (FFFJ), a national network of press oriented organizations, together with the undersigned media organizations and mass communication faculty and students, is calling for concrete action at this time. We realize that there are many other urgent problems that call for your attention. But you were elected because the people were hungry for change, and you thwart that belief in the possibility of change at the risk of the people’s loss of faith in the capacity of the system to deliver justice.

The killing of journalists is part of the culture of impunity, and no real and lasting reform is possible in such a context. While there are other victims, journalist victims stand out because they make news. However, the gains made to stop journalist killings will not protect journalists alone, but will effectively redound to the greater public safety of all citizens.

On July 9, 2010, or only a week after Your Excellency assumed the Presidency, broadcaster Miguel Belen of Camarines Sur was shot, and died 22 days later, on July 31. Six months later, on January 24, 2011, Gerardo Ortega was gunned down in Puerto Princesa, Palawan while in a used clothing store. It has since been established that both killings were work-related.

A third killing, that of Malabon broadcaster Len Flores Sumera, occurred on March 24, 2011 exactly two months after the Ortega killing. It was six years to the day since the killing of Marlene Esperat in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat province. Although her relatives and colleagues say that she was probably killed because of a land dispute, Sumera’s murder could still be work- related as she had included this issue in her radio program.

Three other journalists were killed between July 3, 2010—two days after Your Excellency assumed the Presidency—and January 31, 2011. While probably not work-related, these killings are part of the same culture of impunity that has allowed to go unpunished the murder not only of journalists but also that of political activists, human rights workers, members of the clergy, lawyers and even progressive local officials.

Whether or not the killings of these journalists were work-related, their murders and that of their colleagues as well as fellow citizens are sorry indicators of the continuing erosion of the rule of law. Because they are among the dozens of murders of journalists and other citizens that have not been resolved, or the cases of which are proceeding in fits and starts in the judicial system, they also encourage further killings.

The most high-profile case of all, that of the 58 men and women killed on November 23, 2009 in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province, belongs in the latter category. Fifteen months since the Massacre, in which 32 journalists and media workers were killed together with 26 others, the cases against the alleged masterminds and killers have hardly moved. Even more dangerously, however, these killings enfeeble the Philippine state, demonstrating that it cannot enforce its own laws, and protect its own citizens within its own territory.

More immediately, the failure to prosecute the killers of journalists as well as those of political activists and the masterminds behind these crimes is sending the dangerous signal that, as in the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the killings can continue during your watch without the perpetrators being punished. That failure will confirm that impunity will continue to reign, and those with the means will not stop the use of violence against those they wish to silence.

Mr. President, what is needed is concrete action that will turn the page in the public mind: action that will send a signal that the executive will do all that is necessary and within its power to counter impunity.

In a meeting on August 8, 2010, the FFFJ and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines discussed their concerns with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Secretary Herminio Coloma of the Presidential Communications Operations Office and Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda. Among other initiatives, we recommended 1) the strengthening of the Witness Protection Program; and 2) the formation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Response Teams which will combine both investigative, forensic and other police actions on the killing of journalists. We also asked for steps that would accelerate the pace of the Ampatuan Massacre trial, and, for long-term reform, a review of the rules of court to diminish the possibility of abuse and manipulation.

We understand that it has been less than a year since that meeting. But we are alarmed by the unabated killing of journalists and political activists, and the continuing human rights violations which undermine Philippine democracy more than any rebellion. We reiterate the need for your administration to act now to prevent the further deterioration and the recurrence of more killings – if only to retain the public’s confidence in the promise of reform.

We are joined in this call by other media organizations which see the weakness of the judicial system as central to the dismantling of the culture of impunity. We know that the president is confronted daily by many challenges. We are aware that you have inherited the fallout from the previous administration’s neglect and indifference, from nine years under your predecessor’s watch when the number of work-related killing of journalists and media workers killed rose to 117.
As we pause from daily routine in this period of spiritual contemplation and renewal, we ask once again that you draw strength from our advocacy to end the impunity that has punished the Filipino people for so long.

Signed by:
Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Center for Community Journalism and Development
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Selected faculty members of the University of the Philippines-College of Mass Communication
Dr. Roland Tolentino, Dean
Dr. Elizabeth Enriquez, Department of Broadcast Communication
Prof. Data Tolentino-Canlas, Department of Broadcast Communication
Prof. Melba Estonilo, Department of Broadcast Communication
Dr. Lourdes Portus, Department of Communication Research
Prof. Lourdes Simbulan, Department of Journalism
Prof. Danilo Arao, Department of Journalism
Prof. Luis Teodoro, former dean
Dr. Elena Pernia, former dean
Prof. Cenon Palomares, UP Film Institute
Dr. Florinda Mateo, Department of Communication Research
BusinessWorld
College Editors Guild of the Philippines
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines




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