Grim Anniversary for Shocking Filipino Media Massacre

Gunmen in the southern Philippine province of Manguindanao appear to have celebrated the fifth anniversary of the biggest murder of media workers in world history by assassinating Dennix Sakal, one of the two witnesses to the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre and wounding a second, Butch Saudigal.

The two were employees of former Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., who is believed to have led as many as 100 gunmen including police and soldiers to attack a convoy carrying relatives of Esmael Mangudadatu, who was challenging the Ampatuan political machine in the 2010 general election. Mangudadatu’s wife, Genalyn and 57 other people were killed, including 32 journalists, in an episode that shocked the world. Mangudadatu later became Maguindanao governor after Ampatuan and his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., were arrested.

At least eight witnesses and their family members have been killed in such attacks since the massacre took place as the trial has droned on in a Manila courtroom. Nobody has been held accountable for the killings of the witnesses.

The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with at least 77 gunned down since 1992 for various reasons. Twelve were killed in 2013 and another three this year, bringing the total number to 27 since President Benigno Aquino III took office in June 2010. In only six of those 24 cases have police arrested suspects. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists designated the Philippines as the third “most dangerous country” in the world for journalists, after Iraq and Somalia.

“Five years after the victims’ bodies were found in mass graves off a highway near the town of Ampatuan, the massacre – and the still-rising death toll connected to it – remain a shameful exemplar of impunity in the Philippines,” said Carlos Conde, a representative for Human Rights Watch in Manila in a prepared release.

Sakal’s death, Conde said, “speaks volumes for the Philippine government’s inability or unwillingness to protect witnesses who are key to securing convictions of suspects – including local police and soldiers – implicated in the murders.”

The case, Conde said, is effectively in judicial limbo. In a country where court procedures are already slow, tedious and often delayed, bail petitions and testimony challenges by the defense lawyers of the 110 suspects in custody have overwhelmed the court.

Philippine Senator Joker Arroyo said at one point that with at least 198 defendants and 300 witnesses, the trial could take up to 200 years to adjudicate. While that might seem exaggerated, Prosecution lawyer Harry Roque said it would last more than 100. At least 98 suspects remain at large, Conde said.

“The killing of yet another witness in the Maguindanao massacre case aims to subvert the legal process by undermining the prosecution's case against members of the politically powerful Ampatuan clan," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "We are outraged that authorities have failed to protect witnesses. This sabotages efforts to break the cycle of impunity in journalist murders in the Philippines."

Sakal and Saudigal were riding on a motorized tricycle on their way to speak with prosecution lawyers to formalize their participation as witnesses in the long-running case when they were shot down in a remote village.

Esmael Mangudadatu condemned the attack, which has dealt another blow to the case against the Ampatuans and their henchmen.

“That's why I cautioned them to be extra careful in their everyday dealings. The suspects are desperate enough to find way to strike against those who will put them down," he said.

Police Senior Superintendent Rodelio Jocson, Maguindanao police director, said two witnesses have identified the suspects and authorities are finalizing cases to be filed against them.