Roy Mabasa, brother of slain radio commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa, is seeking the “intervention” of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to bring the alleged masterminds to justice.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) seemed to have lost their rigor in seeing the case through, Mabasa told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
“Dati, masigasig sila (They used to be enthusiastic),” he told PCIJ. “Parang wala ka nang maaasahan talaga sa atin (It seems like there’s no one you can count on nowadays).”
A court hearing was scheduled on Monday, November 13, but it was postponed. Las Piñas City Regional Trial Court Branch 254 Judge Harold Cesar Huliganga would have heard the plea bargain of self-confessed gunman Joel Escorial, who moved to plead guilty to the lesser offense of homicide.
The court last heard the case two months ago.
The slay case opened a can of worms at the national penitentiary. Three persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) were sentenced to additional prison terms after pleading guilty as accomplices to Lapid’s murder and received additional sentences.
The alleged masterminds remain at large — former Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) director-general Gerald Bantag and former directorate for security and operations Ricardo Zulueta. The two are facing murder charges for allegedly masterminding the killing of Lapid and alleged middleman Jun Villamor, who died in the custody of the National Bilibid Prison (NBP).
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said this could only be “partial justice.”
“As long as alleged masterminds are still at large… it adds to the culture of impunity around journalist killings,” said NUJP chair Jonathan de Santos. “[Perpetrators] are emboldened to continue doing it nang walang pananagutan (without liability).”
Mabasa said he hoped President Marcos would order law enforcement agencies to prioritize the arrest of Bantag and Zulueta.
“Ang president kasi will have a lot to do with the case… He should step in para makita natin kung merong hustisya sa atin (He should step in so we can see if there is justice here),” Mabasa said.
Case hangs on arrest of alleged masterminds
In early October, a team from the Department of Justice (DOJ) raided Bantag’s home in Baguio City but didn’t find him there, Mabasa said.
“Pagkatapos naman niyan, tumigil na sila. Wala nang ginagawa na naman (After that, they stopped. They’re not doing anything again),” said Mabasa.
Bantag’s last known public appearances were in March, when he attended the graduation of his son Seal at the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) in Silang, Cavite, and in February, when he joined the Kalinga Day and Bodong Festival in Kalinga. His arrest warrant was issued in April.
A graduate of the PNPA, Bantay may have been tipped off to evade arrests, the DOJ claimed.
“He has a certain network as well within the police and… in other law enforcement agencies, which makes it a little bit tricky,” DOJ spokesperson Mico Clavano told reporters in June.
The DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) have offered a reward for information on their whereabouts — P2 million for Bantag and P1 million for Zulueta. The Bureau of Immigration has issued hold departure orders (HDOs) against them.
Despite the warrants and HDOs against them, Bantag had been interviewed twice so far by three vloggers — Coach Oli, Banat By, and Boss Dada TV — collectively known as the “Banatero Brothers.” The interviews were posted on the vloggers’ YouTube and Facebook accounts.
Some reports have also circulated that Bantag moves around the Cordilleras, his home region. He has gained rockstar status there as the first four-star general from PNPA. Some local groups are even urging him to join the senatorial race in 2025.
Bantag also founded the Igorot Warriors International, a party-list group that sought to participate in the 2022 national elections.
In an interview with SMNI in June, former President Rodrigo Duterte also said that he was in touch with Bantag. Duterte did not say where Bantag was because he “only knew his number.” It was Duterte who appointed Bantag to the top BuCor post in 2019.
Since Lapid’s murder last year, two more media workers were killed. The more recent case was that of broadcaster Juan “DJ Johnny Walker” Jumalon, who was brazenly shot while on air. The crime was caught on Facebook livestream.
Jumalon is the fourth media worker killed under the Marcos administration.
The Philippines continues to be a dangerous place for journalists. In its 2023 Impunity Index, New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked the Philippines eighth among countries where killers of journalists go unpunished.
Lapid’s case was one of the high-profile media killings in the Philippines since the Maguindanao massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, on Nov. 23, 2009.
Mabasa urged the public to support the family’s call for justice. The public should hold the government accountable, so they can hold perpetrators accountable, he said.
De Santos said the public should recognize that journalists are not the only ones affected “because, in a sense, the voices journalists amplify in their reports” were also silenced.
He added that the escalating level of brazenness should also be seen as worrisome. “Even if it’s not media work-related, as in the case of Jumalon, that should trouble us… because it speaks of a potential breakdown in the rule of law.”
“It can happen to anyone, even if they’re not journalists,” he said. END
Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office