Maguindanao Massacre, Year 4

Media murders: Few suspects in jail, few cases in court, conviction rate low

Last of Two Parts

AMONG THE 19 work-related media killings recorded by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) under the Aquino administration, the murder of broadcaster Romeo Olea has been classified as a cold case. No case against the killers of Olea has been filed in the court due to the lack of information that can lead to their identities.

Olea was on his way to work when he was gunned down in on June 13, 2011 in Iriga City, Camarines Sur by an unidentified man riding in a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.

Olea often discussed issues about the local government of Iriga in his radio program in dwEB-FM. He was the second broadcaster from dwEB-FM killed in the line of duty under the Aquino administration. The first was Miguel Belen, who was shot seven times on July 9, 2010 and is the first fatality from media-related violence under the Aquino administration. Belen passed away three weeks after he was shot. Murder charges have been filed against two suspects who were supposedly identified by Belen by name before he died.

If one were to go by statistics, though, the chances of the case prospering are slim. Indeed, pessimists abound even with the highly publicized case of the Maguindanao Massacre, which marks its fourth anniversary this Saturday.

The sheer audacity of the perpetrators in that tragedy proved to be their undoing, which is why several suspects are now in detention. But data from the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) show that the rate of identification and arrest of suspects is bad, the rate at which cases get to court is poor, and the conviction rate is abysmal.

Cold, dead cases

In 2011, the number of media murder cases already considered cold or dead cases, where police have been unable to identify and arrest any suspect, was pegged at 65 out of 121 work-related media murders since 1986, or 54 percent. Of these 121 cases, only 10 convictions have been handed down by the courts, or a conviction rate of just eight percent. Not one of these involved any mastermind, based on CMFR data.

Take, for instance, the case of slain Palawan broadcaster Gerardo ‘Doc Gerry’ Ortega, where there has been a conviction. A radio broadcaster and environment advocate, Ortega had spoken against the misuse of the royalties arising from the Malampaya gas fields off Palawan province. He was shot and killed on January 24, 2011. By last May, the court had convicted Marlon Recamata for Ortega’s murder, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

But that was hardly the end of the Ortega case. The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes and his brother, former Coron Mayor Mario Reyes, as the alleged masterminds of the killing, but by then they had already fled the country. Their lawyers were also able to convince the Court of Appeals to let the brothers off the hook on a legal technicality. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has said she will bring the matter to the Supreme Court. The Reyeses, meanwhile, remain at large.

Since 2011, the number of murders has increased, but the conviction rate has barely moved. The FFFJ now lists 137 work-related media murders since 1986, of which only 11 cases have seen convictions of the gunmen.

Not up to par

Media observers agree that a major element in discouraging media killings is by addressing the issue of impunity. For as long as authorities are unable or unwilling to identify, arrest, and prosecute killers and the masterminds, the killings will continue. What this boils down to, at its very core, is the ability of police investigators to build a solid case against the suspects.

“When we speak of impunity, the simplest layman’s translation I can think of is that no one is made answerable to account for the media murders,” says FFFJ legal counsel Prima Quinsayas. “In the five years I have been handling media murder cases, it is getting worse. There does not seem to be an improvement in the criminal justice system.”

“Most of the acquittals that are issued by the courts is because there was no proof beyond reasonable doubt, and the main reason usually is the evidence coming from the PNP (Philippine National Police),” Quinsayas adds. “If at the start of the case, the investigation is also not up to par, then the evidence presented in court will really be subpar, and the evidence we need of guilt beyond reasonable doubt will not be achieved.”

A report on extrajudicial killings in the country that was published in 2010 also says that the common causes of delay in such cases include non-identification of the assailants, lack of witnesses who are willing to give their testimony in the preliminary investigation, and the lack of cooperation from the witnesses.

The report, written by Elections Commissioner Al Parreño, says that one result is that “it takes an average of six months and 22 days for the process of the preliminary investigation to be completed for extrajudicial killings. This process begins from the filing of the criminal complaint until the issuance of the prosecutor’s resolution.”

And yet Task Force Usig — a superbody of sorts created by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2006 following the rise in murders of journalists and activists — has put out its own glowing accomplishment report on the gains it has supposedly made in the past three years in improving the investigative capabilities of the local police force.

The Task Force, incidentally, is headed by the Director for Investigation and Detective Management (DIDM), a police general. In fact, the task force has several police generals under its wing, if only to show the high level of involvement and interest of the PNP in media murder cases.

Corps of trained cops

According to Task Force Usig, police reform measures have been put in place with the help of funding from the European Union through the European Union-Philippines Justice Support Programme (EPJUST).

For example, says Chief Superintendent and DIDM Deputy Director Jose Jorge Corpuz, they have already trained 17,900 police officers in investigation techniques, even though their original target was to only train the 7,000 police investigators the PNP has all over the country. In exceeding their targets, Corpuz says the PNP expects significant gains in the ability of policemen to investigate crimes and prosecute criminals.

The long-term target, Corpuz says, is to deter crime by making criminals afraid of getting caught. The only way to do this, of course, is by upgrading the skills and equipment of the PNP so that it can really catch criminals — and not just name them “Juan de la Cruz.”

In truth, the PNP has made significant gains in upgrading skills and equipment — at least on paper. Task Force Usig says it has already published a plethora of manuals to aid investigators in solving high profile crimes. The basic infrastructure for serious investigative work — such as databases for fingerprints and ballistics — has also been put into place. These include the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) for the matching and identification of firearms and ammunition, and the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).

In addition, the PNP has deployed crime scene kits, at least on the regional and provincial level, in order to try to professionalize the collection of evidence.

Corpuz says that they have even started to rethink the role of policemen as not just crime fighters, but also as crime solvers. In the past, Corpuz says, an ordinary police station of 20 police officers would only have one or two full-time police investigators. With the new policy direction in place, Corpuz says the PNP hierarchy now requires that 30 percent of the personnel complement of a station be dedicated to crime investigation.


“We want more personnel for crime solution, we need more investigators,” says Corpuz. “Investigation is a game-changer. This is what will create fear among the criminals, that we will be caught, we will be identified.”

Clearly, though, these improvements are still to be felt on the ground. PO3 Ashley Vergara in Cabanatuan City says he has already gone through all the training seminars dished out by the PNP for investigators. These include the basic 45-day criminal investigation course in 2011, and the International Criminal Investigation Training Program in 2010. Yet when asked about a year-old media killing case that he has been handling since Day One, Vergara has to dig up his files to come up with the most basic information. Not surprisingly, little progress has been in the case. (See sidebar)

One senior provincial police official, however, says that these training seminars are still to have a significant impact on the police investigators. This is because much of the training received by the investigators were classroom lectures, instead of hands-on on-the-job training that would be more helpful, says the police official who requests that his identity be withheld.

Unless the investigators are able to translate their classroom lectures into real life lessons, he notes, these training sessions would be nothing more than factories that churn out certificates for display on the wall.

The PNP’s move to assign more investigators may also have limited impact — unless more investigators means hiring more policemen. As the provincial police official points out, simply renaming other policemen as investigators would not free them from their other duties in the police station.

Stats vs reality

FFFJ’s legal counsel Quinsayas says that Usig’s glowing accounts should be taken with a grain of salt.

“With all due respect to the members of Usig, I know them, and they seem to me to be very genuine in that they actually share my passion for catching the killers,” Quinsayas says. “I am afraid sometimes, that statistics can be used to hide the real situation.”

She explains, “It is like a school with only four graduates who take the board exam and they all pass, and the school says they have a hundred percent passing rate. Compare that to another school with 100 graduates, 90 of whom pass and so you only have a 90 percent passing rate. Usig is like that.”

As it is, Quinsayas and other media activists have been having problems with the task force’s media-killing count. Consider: According to Task Force Usig, there were only 43 media killings from 2001 to September 2013. CMFR’s count for the same period, meanwhile, comes to 100, while the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) says there were 121.

Both CMFR and NUJP include the 32 journalists slain in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre; the task force does not. But even if both CMFR and NUJP were to exclude the journalists who died in that 2009 carnage, their count would still be more than Task Force Usig’s. More interestingly, the task force says there has been only six media killings so far since Aquino assumed the presidency — or just about 30 percent of the tally of CMFR and NUJP for “work-related” media killings during the same period.

What is a media murder?

Carlos Marquez, chairman of NUJP-Cabanatuan City Chapter, believes the task force whittles down its figure to make the public think all is well or that the situation is improving. “Hanggang maaari zero para ipakita sa tao na tahimik (They will reduce it to zero if they can to show to the public that the situation is peaceful),” Marquez says.

The task force’s figures, though, seem to be more the result of its quibbling over which case should classify as a “media killing.”

Police Chief Superintendent Henry Libay, head of the Task Force Usig Secretariat, says that for a journalist’s murder to be considered a media killing, it must be “work-related.” He says it is during the investigation that the task force decides whether or not the killing was connected to the journalist’s work, such as, say a hard-hitting commentary or expose.

Libay also says that the task force does not include in the number of media murders the journalists who died in the Maguindano Massacre because they were only “collateral damage” in the crime, which the superbody considers to be primarily an election-related case of violence.

The journalists slain in the 2009 tragedy were not the target of the killers, who were after the relatives of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu, Libay argues. The journalists, he adds, may be considered “collateral damage” because they just happened to be there when the massacre occurred.

Quinsayas begs to differ. She says that the 32 journalists and media workers killed in the massacre were performing their duty as journalists at the time. For sure, Mangudadatu, by inviting the journalists, had been thinking the presence of media would protect his relatives who were to file his certificate of candidacy for governor on his behalf. The journalists, in turn, were most probably keen on covering a story of a political upstart daring to challenge a powerful local leader with blatant ties to Malacañang.

In the line of duty

DOJ Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III himself says that the journalists were doing their job when their convoy was stopped and they were subsequently slaughtered. “For as long as the media person is targeted because he is a media person, then that’s media killing,” says Baraan.

NUJP Chairperson Rowena Paraan meanwhile says that her organization considers all media killings as work-related until there is a proof that the killing was not connected to the work of the journalist. “If there’s no definite conclusion that a journalist was killed because of his work, then it’s much better to consider it as work-related,” she reiterates.

At first glance, it would seem that the CMFR thinks the same way. CMFR Deputy Director Luis Teodoro, after all, defines media killings as the murder of journalists and media workers. But he clarifies that CMFR does resort to having work-related media killings as a subcategory for cases of slain journalists deliberately targeted because of their reports.

Paraan observes that the police far too often easily conclude that murders with journalist-victims are actually due to reasons other than work. The reasons cited by police, she says, usually revolve around love triangles, land issues, and quarrels with neighbors.

She insists, “Media killings in the country are targeted killings, the killings are assassinations.”

Strength is weakness

In any case, Quinsayas says that Task Force Usig’s strength may also be its greatest weakness. As a supervisory super body that coordinates all activities, Task Force Usig is in reality toothless since it has no men of its own on the ground. In the end, Task Force Usig will have to rely on the ordinary police investigator from a small town in the countryside who is vulnerable, and maybe impressionable, to political pressure. As a result, the task force’s performance will only be as good as the performance of the men on the ground, the same men who are still the source of the PNP’s challenges.

“When you go back to the order that created Usig, it simply created an office that is within the DIDM of the PNP, but did not provide its own logistics nationwide,” Quinsayas says. “So we have a TF Usig working from (Camp) Crame, still having to utilize policemen, officers down the line in the provinces.”

“So,” she continues,” if you get a journalist killed in a province, and the suspect is a member of the local police, what do you do then? There is no Usig police officer in that locality. E ‘di ganun pa rin (Everything remains the same).”

In 2012, human rights activists had also pricked their ears when on November 22, President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ C. Aquino III signed Administrative Order No. 35, creating the Inter-Agency Committee on Extra Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Persons. The new body’s aim is to stop extrajudicial killings such as media murders and other human-rights violations in the country.

Justice Undersecretary Baraan tells PCIJ that the creation of the Committee, which includes the PNP and therefore also Task Force Usig, shows that Aquino is sincere in stopping extrajudicial killings in the country.

One year after, however, the Committee has yet to take any significant action. — With research and reporting by Ed Lingao, Cong B. Corrales, and Fernando Cabigao Jr., PCIJ, November 2013