Philippine Editor Receives Death Warnings

Marites Dañguilan Vitug, editor-in-chief of the Philippines online news outlet Newsbreak, has received at least eight death threats in connection with a book she wrote that was critical of the country's Supreme Court, Vitug said in an interview. An excerpt from the book can be found here: Puno's Quest

"I started receiving texts on my phone," Vitug told Asia Sentinel. "The police are investigating. It's hard to say who's behind it – a litigant, or a justice or a powerful person." ' Her book, Shadow of a Doubt, Probing the Supreme Court was published earlier this month. The book strips a good deal of the dignity away from the court, including such passages as the fact that one justice, when he retired, took the office furniture with him, requiring his successor to wait for two months until new furniture could be built. Other passages have justices leaking their decisions to favored litigants to give them time to prepare for the judgment.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that the Philippine government vigorously pursue its investigation into the death threats. It is questionable, however, how aggressive the government will be. The CPJ has recorded at least 24 unsolved journalist murders in the last decade, not counting the 30 gunned down in a single stunning incident in November of 2009 when the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao Province on Mindano Island launched its private army against a political opponent's family and allies and murdered 30 journalists and two media workers as well as 25 other people.

The first message, received Monday afternoon in Tagalog, said: "The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the sword kills faster than the word." It was followed by a second saying "Now I know why many journalists are killed. It's because they were like you. Ampatuan did have a reason to kill those journalists. You should have been with them. Who knows, you might be next."

Although Vitug said the texts came from the same telephone, it is impossible to tell who is sending them. In the Philippines most telephone calls are made on prepaid charge cards with temporary numbers. Newsbreak told the Committee to Protect Journalists it attempted to reach the sender of the threats, but its calls to the originating number were not answered.

"The Philippine justice department has a terrible record of protecting journalists and of prosecuting those who commit violence against them," Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director, said in a statement on the press organization's website. "The judiciary can show journalists that it is fully committed to protecting their rights by pursuing a full and vigorous investigation into these despicable threats."

Vitug is an award-winning journalist who said she had previously received death threats in the 1980s over a previous book, Power from the Forest: The Politics of Logging, which received the Philippines National Book Award.

In her statement about the threats, Vitug said: "The sender wants to intimidate me or warn me. I want to make this public because this is the best protection." Her statement was widely covered in the Philippine press.

Certainly the Philippines Supreme Court needs considerable defending. In 1998, for instance, the court managed to clear former First Lady Imelda Marcos of corruption charges despite the fact that observers believe the Marcos family stole anywhere from US$5 billion to US$100 billion from the country while her husband, Ferdinand, was in office.

The court's latest questionable decision was a 9-1 vote on March 17 that empowers President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to name a new chief justice when the sitting chief justice retires in June after the election – despite a constitutional ban on appointments before and after elections. She is likely to appoint a crony, her former chief of staff and spokesman, Renato Corona, skipping over the next in line, Antonio Carpio, who in the past has gone against her in the court. The court ruled that the constitutional ban doesn't apply to the Supreme Court. Arroyo is said to believe shemight need the court's protection from corruption charges after she leaves office at the end of June.