By: Purple Romero

A full decade after the massacre of 58 people – 32 of them journalists – in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2019, a Manila court is expected to hand down a verdict before this year is out. But despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence against the 197 accused, there is deep concern over whether justice will be served or whether anybody cares or remembers.

The forgotten memory serves as a sordid reminder of other things that have been abandoned as years passed by, such as promises made by presidents that the resolution of the Maguindanao massacre would be prioritized.

International press watchdog organizations have called the killings the biggest recorded massacre of journalists anywhere in history, along with the other 26 who died. They were all part of a convoy led by Genalyn Mangudadatu, who was supposed to file the certificate of candidacy of her husband, Buluan vice mayor Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu, for the governorship of the province.  

They were set upon by at least 100 armed men allegedly headed by Mangudadatu’s rival, then Datu Unsay mayor and local warlord Andal Ampatuan Jr. Their bodies were later buried in three mass grave sites.

The killings, along with allegations of torture and at least one rape sparked national outcry and global condemnation. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines third in its Impunity Index following the incident, only after Somalia and Iraq, both then in the middle of wars.

Amid the furor, of the 197 suspects accused, 115 were arrested and 103 went on trial. Fifteen were Ampatuans. The principal suspects were Andal, his brothers Zaldy, Sajid and their father, Andal Ampatuan Sr. The Ampatuan patriarch died in 2015 due to liver cancer, while Sajid was allowed to post bail the same year.

Three of those charged have been acquitted due to lack of evidence, while four others (including Andal Sr.) died during detention. Over 200 witnesses have been presented, with three witnesses for the prosecution murdered for their testimony.

Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, is not that optimistic that justice is within reach. 

“The sheer number of the victims and those accused, both detained and at large, would make this case unresolved even after 10 years,” Arao said. “Public interest also seems to be waning, and it may be partly due to the minimal media coverage on the progress of the Ampatuan massacre case through the years.”

Ampatuans: political clout remains

For Emily Lopez, who lost her cousin Arturo Betia in the attack along with four colleagues of the weekly Periodico Ini, the outcome of the years-long trial deeply worries her. She crusades for justice for the dead, regularly talking to students whose memory of the horror is receding.  

“I’ve talked to some students. Some of them remember what happened, some of them don’t. That’s what hurts. It’s only been 10 years and they’ve already forgotten,” Lopez said. If the principal suspects are not convicted, Lopez said this will only confirm that the justice system in the country does not work.

 “It will show that the justice system here is really not for the victims,” she said.

The Ampatuans are powerful opponents, bristling warlords who enjoyed the support of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, belonging to her political party, Lakas-Kampi-CMD. The alliance was instrumental in Arroyo’s victory in the scandal-scarred 2004 presidential elections, as local news reports said the Ampatuan clan helped secure her win by rigging the votes from Maguindanao. 

Zaldy later claimed that Arroyo and her husband, Mike Arroyo, asked them to engage in another case of election cheating, this time for the administration’s senatorial slate in the 2007 midterm elections.

Prior to that, in 2006, Arroyo issued an executive order which allowed the Ampatuans to arm civilians to supposedly fight Moro rebels, giving them the power to essentially create their own private army. The Ampatuans were later expelled from Lakas-Kampi-CMD, but they continued to hold influence over Maguindanao. Macapagal Arroyo left the presidency in 2010 to spend almost the entire six-year reign of her successor, Benigno S. Aquino III, under house arrest for allegations of corruption. However, when Aquino left office, she reentered politics to become speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives. She has since retired.

“Some of the members of the Ampatuan family may be in jail but those who are not behind bars (including the one who was granted bail) are still very much powerful because political warlordism and patronage politics still exist,” Arao said. “Their enablers are not just the police and the military but also the other politicians at the national level who depend on them to get much-needed votes.” 

A special report by the GMAnetwork.com news site showed that the Ampatuans won big in 2010, with four of those accused in the massacre clinching mayoral or vice mayoral posts. The Hong Kong broadsheet South China Morning Post reported in 2013 that the wives of the main Ampatuan suspects were re-elected mayors. Datu Andal “Datu Aguak” Santiago Ampatuan V, son of Andal Jr., became mayor in 2019 of Datu Unsay.

“There’s no judgment yet but they’re already returning to their posts,” Lopez said.

Not another 10 years

Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, said an acquittal would affirm that a culture of impunity plagues the Philippines.

“Any verdict other than conviction will send a clear message that the culture of impunity truly reigns in this country and that warlordism, political patronage and corruption will continue to hold sway,” he said.

The Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), which was formed in 2016 under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, believed the verdict will result in major convictions, however.

“We expect that justice will ultimately prevail for the victims and their families,” PTFoMS co-chairperson Martin Andanar said in a statement released early November. 

But media killings have persisted under the Duterte administration. The Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network said in its May 2019 report on the state of media under Duterte that 14 journalists have died since he came to office in 2016 – the latest to be radio journalist Dindo Generoso, who was shot in the head and killed on November 14 in the city of Dumaguete. A total of 187 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986.

The freedom network is composed of different media groups in the Philippines: the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Philippine Press Institute, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).The NUJP has helped provide scholarships to the children of those who were killed in the Maguindanao massacre. 

The rampant violence against journalists has fueled Lopez’s will to continue fighting. She said a decade of waiting and seeking for justice for Betia and the other victims of the tragedy has made her see that they should not give up, as media killings continue in the country regardless of who is in power. 

“I just hope it will not take another 10 years before the other cases of media killings can be solved,” she said.