The Philippines Journalist Massacre 3 years Later

Three years after an army of gunmen allied with a powerful clan shot down 58 media workers and political aides on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines, the government has failed to arrest more than 100 suspects and the trial of those they did arrest drags on at a depressingly slow pace.

On Nov. 23, 2009, some 200 armed men belonging to the private army of Maguindinao Province Capo Andal Ampatuan intercepted a convoy carrying journalists and family members and political supporters of Ampatuan’s rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, as they went to register Mangudadutu’s candidacy for then-upcoming elections.

It would be the largest massacre of journalists recorded anywhere in the world – 32 journalists, and media workers in addition to the 20 Mangudadatu relatives and supporters and the largest massacre recorded in recent Philippine history.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has named Nov. 23 the International Day to End Impunity. However, there has been little progress against impunity in either the Maguindanao Massacre case or against the wider concern about impunity in the Philippines, where at least 15 private armies like the one that gunned down the 58 people three years ago continue to roam despite a vow by President Benigno S. Aquino III that he would force them to disband when he was elected.

“The Maguindanao Massacre brought to light the dangers posed by private armies, militias, and paramilitaries in the Philippines, but the administration has not seriously addressed the problem,” Human Rights Watch said. Aquino should rescind Executive Order 546, issued in 2006 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which allows the arming of the private armies by local officials.”

While the private armies are largely thought of as a Mindanao phenomenon, they are actually spread across the Philippines. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas identified 15 “priority provinces considered as high-risk areas in terms of political violence.” Only four are on Mindanao, with 10 on the main island of Luzon. One is in the Visayas, in the central part of the country.

“Made up of thugs in the pay of corrupt politicians, paramilitary groups and contract hit men paid a few thousand dollars per killing, private militias continue to threaten and kill journalists,” said the NGO Reporters Without Borders. “Authorities have shown themselves powerless in the face of these groups. Moreover, official corruption as well as links between some politicians and organized-crime networks often allow private militias to escape justice.”

“The Aquino administration claims that it has ‘neutralized’ 28 so-called “private armies,” Human Rights Watch said, “but as recently as last week it identified 107 more of these armed groups. The Interior Department has stated these groups might be used to harass voters.

In the Maguindanao case, the gunmen forced the electioneering group and the journalists off the highway near the town of Ampatuan, ordered them out of their vehicles and shot them down. In the resultant furor, Andal Ampatuan and several members of his clan were arrested. Of the 197 identified suspects involved in the shooting, only 99 have been arrested. Of those, 81 have been indicted. The rest, mostly members of the police militia called the Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO), remain at large.

In the meantime, there has been a steady attrition of witnesses through intimidation, kidnapping and murder. Three witnesses have been murdered, including a militia member sho had agreed to testify.

“Three years since the horrors of the Maguindanao Massacre, the trial crawls along, half of the suspects remain at large, and the victims’ families still face threats,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet the larger problem is that the Aquino administration has done next to nothing to disband the rest of the country’s private armies.”

The family actually controlled the province through a private army of 2,000 to 5,000 armed individuals including a government-supported militia, local police and military personnel, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The trial so far has mostly concerned the 56 bail petitions filed before the court. The prosecution has yet to complete its presentation of evidence and witnesses.

Relatives of victims have alleged that they have faced threats, intimidation, and bribery, allegedly from Ampatuan supporters; one of the widows decided to leave the Philippines this year out of fear. In November, the Supreme Court rejected a petition seeking live television coverage of the trial. Relatives of victims told Human Rights Watch that they had hoped showing live coverage would lend transparency to the proceedings and encourage the court to expedite hearings.

“The Maguindanao Massacre brought to light the dangers posed by private armies, militias, and paramilitaries in the Philippines, but the administration of President Benigno Aquino III has not seriously addressed the problem,” Human Rights Watch said. “Aquino should rescind Executive Order 546, issued in 2006 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which allows the arming of the CVOs by local officials. The Ampatuans justified the recruitment and arming of militia members, ostensibly to fight Islamist rebels but in reality to consolidate their hold on power, by citing Executive Order 546.

The Aquino administration claims that it has “neutralized” 28 so-called “private armies,” but as recently as last week it identified 107 more of these armed groups. The Interior Department has stated these groups might be used to harass voters.

“Aquino pledged during the campaign that he would revoke Executive Order 546, but he has reneged on that promise,” Adams said. “With one stroke of a pen, he can make good on his commitment for the good of all Filipinos.”

Human Rights Watch urged the president to issue an executive order banning the militias, require all government officials to report firearms acquired for their own professional or personal use, end all private funding of such groups, and implement their staged reduction and disbandment and order an audit of public funds to see if they have been used directly or indirectly for creating, arming, and supporting militia forces, and if so, the source of the funds.