Larry Sy Que, a publisher and columnist of Catanduanes News Now in southern Luzon, was shot dead on December 19, 2016 by the usual suspects in the killings of media workers in the Philippines — unknown motorcycle-riding assassins. He was entering his office in Virac town when a bullet was fired from behind him. He had no chance of dodging it.
Que’s murder didn’t go to trial despite his death getting high-profile attention. A complaint filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) was dismissed because of “insufficient evidence” after the key witness presented by Que’s common-law-wife recanted his testimony.
Joey Llana, a radio blocktimer in Legazpi City in Albay, took 14 bullets from gunmen who made sure he didn’t survive the attack on July 20, 2018. He was maneuvering his vehicle from the parking area of his residence in Daraga town when he was ambushed.
The Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Legazpi City (Branch 4) issued warrants of arrest against suspects, who included an alleged gunman who was identified from a pistol in an old crime scene that matched the bullets that killed Llana. However, no arrests were made in the succeeding three years, and the warrant lapsed. The case was archived in 2021.
Joaquin Briones, a columnist from Masbate province, died on the spot after receiving four bullets on his back in an attack in Milagros town on March 13, 2017. At least four suspects were arrested after his murder, but the prosecution failed to present witnesses against them. The charges have been dismissed and the suspects were released.
These have been the fate of many cases against killers of media workers in the Philippines. Cases are not filed in courts because of “insufficient evidence” or they flounder in courts because of failure to identify, locate, or arrest suspects or because of lack of reliable witnesses.
Data from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) show that at least 176 media workers have been killed in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986 — including 22 who were killed during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. Out of the total, only 19 or only 11% resulted in convictions so far.
Only in four cases have the masterminds been brought to court, including the gruesome Maguindanao massacre, which killed 58 people including 32 media workers in the world’s worst election-related violence.
In 2022, the country ranked seventh worst country in the world in terms of the murder of media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The New York-based press freedom watchdog has placed the country in its impunity index for the past 15 years.
Poor prospects in the court
Only 93 out of 176 cases or 53% of media killings in the Philippines reached the courts.
Que’s murder didn’t go to trial. It is the fate of almost half of the cases of media killings in the country, based on CMFR data. Only 93 out of 176 cases or 53% reached the courts.
A cop did come forward to confess that he was hired to kill Que, publisher and columnist of newly set up Catanduanes News Now in southern Luzon. There was a recorded confession from former PO1 Vincent Tacorda, which he gave with an agent of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) serving as his counsel. Tacorda said he came forward because he took pity on Que’s children after he happened to be assigned as security detail for the family after the murder.
Tacorda revealed how they supposedly planned Que’s murder. He said they borrowed the motorcycle and the gun they used for the murder. They conducted surveillance on Que’s residence for days and had to wait to execute their plan because the columnist had left for Manila the night they originally intended to kill him.
His confession was rich in details. Tacorda said he wore a raincoat and a long wig under his helmet to “disguise himself and to mislead the investigators into thinking that the perpetrators… were females.” It was the bullet of a colleague, another gunman, who fired the fatal shot. The group supposedly received a reward totalling P220,000 from a supposed aide of the incumbent governor of the province.
The complaint didn’t prosper, however. Tacorda recanted his testimony in October 2017, saying his confession was wiretapped and thus inadmissible. The DOJ subsequently released a resolution dismissing the complaint due to “insufficient evidence,” saying the confession of Tacorda cannot support conviction because it is uncorroborated and the cop himself denied it.
Out of the 93 cases that did reach the courts, 52% have already been archived or dismissed.
Out of the 93 cases that did reach the courts, 52% have already been archived or dismissed, based on the same CMFR data.
In several cases, the dismissal was because suspects were never arrested. This was the case in Llana’s murder case, which was archived by RTC Legazpi City, Branch 4. Police said the key suspect, Erwin Talagtag, could not be tried in court because he had left his residence and his whereabouts had since been unknown.
Talagtag had a string of criminal records and was supposedly an alleged member of a criminal group involved in robbery and gun-for-hire incidents in the province. The pistol he allegedly used in another shooting incident matched the pieces of caliber .45 cartridge cases recovered from Llana's crime scene.
The court said the case may be reactivated upon the apprehension of the accused but as of November 2022 the court told PCIJ there had been no developments. Talagtag remains at large.
Other cases of media killings have been dismissed because witnesses do not come forward. Four alleged gunmen in the murder of Briones were arrested, for example, but the prosecution failed to present witnesses against them.
At least six trial dates were scheduled, the clerk of court of RTC Masbate, Branch 44 told PCIJ in an e-mail, after alleged gunman Antonio “Ronnie” del Rosario was arrested in July 2018.
The case was “provisionally dismissed” in 2020, prompting Del Rosario’s release. A court order signed by Judge Mary Flor Tabigue-Logarta said the dismissal shall become final two years after the provisional dismissal if the prosecution will not be able to revive the case.
“Hence, the provisional dismissal became permanent on January 30, 2022 as to accused Antonio Villarin Del Rosario,” the court's e-mail said.
The pattern has been clear. Many media workers who were killed – like Que, Llana, and Briones – have been those who dish out hard-hitting commentaries. Many of the alleged gunmen are believed to be hired hitmen, showing a pattern of powerful persons silencing the media.
Pangilinan believed Que was killed because of a column he published accusing local officials of negligence over the presence of a “major” drug manufacturing facility that was found in the province. The last post on Que’s Facebook profile, dated Dec. 4, 2016, was a YouTube video showing a Congressional hearing exposing the said facility.
Llana was also known in Albay to be hard-hitting when it came to his commentaries. He tackled local corruption and illegal drugs, and was reportedly working on an investigative report involving a local official at the time of his killing. According to his family, he had been receiving death threats “but took it lightly.”
Briones, meanwhile, criticized underground gambling and illegal drug trade, among others in his thrice-weekly column for tabloid Remate. Previously, he hosted the radio program “Dos por Dos” of local radio dyMe.
Newsrooms have led calls for justice, making sure to put them front and center of news coverage. These efforts helped make sure the cases are not forgotten, keeping them alive in national conversations. But even high profile cases are not assured of getting convictions.
Que’s death was immediately high-profile. The attention came mostly from the alleged gunman’s involvement in a Senate hearing supposedly to expose the involvement of his superiors in the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, including children. But he also later recanted his testimony against the PNP.
Even the government body PTFoMS joined the calls for justice. “The case in itself is a high profile case, being the first, by far, verified media worker killing under the administration of President Duterte; second, it involves narco-politics, drugs,” said Joel Egco, then executive director of PTFoMS.
Llana’s murder also prompted high-profile condemnations from the provincial government and the local Catholic church. In Manila, the PTFoMS also coordinated with the PNP to investigate the killing.
“Impunity persists because it is a culture rooted in conditions that have not been addressed. Impunity has revealed that the laws and the conduct of government are no longer based on justice and its related principles of truth,” a CMFR report said.
The media watchdog group said conditions that allow impunity in killings against journalists need to be addressed, such as a gun culture fostering endemic violence; participation of law enforcement agents in criminal activities; poor state of forensic investigation to preserve chain of evidence and scene of crime and other aspects of criminal investigation, leading to a dependence on witness testimonies; an inadequate witness protection program; a legal system that enables lawyers to manipulate the rules and regulations of the court; and a failure to review the system so it can be corrected.
Steps to replicate
Until reforms are in place, lawyers prosecuting cases of media killings will need to navigate the flaws of the Philippine justice system.
Lawyer Nena Santos, who helped in prosecuting cases that won rare convictions, offered a guide for steps that families of victims, media groups, and lawyers may replicate and increase chances of convictions.
Santos prosecuted the murder of investigative journalist Marlene Esperat in 2005. The journalist, who exposed corruption in the regional office of the Department of Agriculture (DA), was killed while she was having dinner with her children in their residence in Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat. The trial lasted for only six months, a rarity in the country. The gunman and his accomplices were convicted although the case against the alleged masterminds were archived because they weren’t arrested.
Santos is also the lawyer for the families of victims of the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, the world’s worst election-related violence which killed 58 people, including 32 media workers. It took a full decade to get convictions, however, and yet the fight goes on because appeals are pending and families of victims are afraid that the decisions may still be overturned.
The first thing to do in any crime scene is collect evidence from the body of the victim. “The body of the victim agad kasi doon may (The body of the victim right away because there you have forensics) forensic ka. Malalaman mo ano nangyari sa kaniya kahit na walang witness ’yan. At least alam mo paano siya pinatay. Baka may evidence pa (You will know what happened to the victim even if there is no witness. At least you’ll know how he was killed. There might even be evidence) — DNA or what,” said Santos.
The alleged gunman in Llana’s murder, for example, was identified through old records of the same bullet in the crime scene.
There’s not enough investigation of these breakthroughs, however. In his analysis of the 2019 Maguindanao trial decision, lawyer Theodore Te underscored how “courts rely too much on testimonial evidence, to the exclusion of all other evidence.”
Te wrote: “How long has the Rule on Electronic Evidence been around? How many courts actually understand how to mark a text message? If courts rely too heavily on testimonial evidence, they will have to wait for witnesses to testify in court. The problem with that is that the longer you wait, the higher the possibility of attrition-witnesses will be bought, threatened, or killed. This has happened many times.”
Te called for the amendment of the Revised Penal Code and the Rules of Court to set standards for a forensic investigation system.
In the paper, Te proposed some quick fixes:
• Apply the Rules of Court - there are provisions that allow for evidence to be perpetuated.
• Take depositions - make them admissible at the first instance.
• Train judges to look for depositions ahead of time.
Santos also proposed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the NBI and the PNP to agree on who will investigate special cases such as when the suspects are powerful.
“Who will lead the investigation? If policemen are involved, who will handle the case? Should it still be PNP?” Santos said.
The families of victims often suspected “state agents” as the masterminds, usually those who have been the subject of the media workers’ commentaries. It had been the case in many other forms of attacks against media workers.
“Kahit anong improvement pa ang gawin nila kung nasa posisyon (ang mastermind), napipiringan mo na ‘yung dapat na tumulong (No matter what improvement they make as long as the mastermind is in power, you’ve already blindfolded those who want to help),” said the daughter of Briones. “‘Yung iba siguro natatakot para sa buhay nila, at ‘yung iba para sa personal na interes (Others probably fear for their lives, and others for their personal interests).”
Santos said the NBI could act as a more independent body in special cases.
She said the DOJ will have to “craft innovative solutions on special cases.”
“Kung by the book ka, hindi mo ma re resolve yan. Matatabunan ka lang ng powers ng nasa taas para ilihis ang investigation, hindi ka bigyan ng support. Ano ba support na kailangan mo (If you go by the book, you won’t be able to resolve it. You’ll get swamped by powerful individuals who want to obstruct the investigation, you won’t get any support. What support do you need?,” she said.
In the aftermath of Esperat’s murder, Santos said she pushed for the immediate arrest of the alleged gunmen – before they disappeared.
In many cases such as Llana’s murder, suspects were not arrested and the cases did not prosper.
In both the Esperat murder and Maguindanao Massacre trials, the witnesses were the key.
In the massacre trial, Te said the decision might not have been arrived at “if not for the state witnesses who were once the accused.”
Santos cited former justice secretary Leila de Lima’s role in making sure that Congress funded the witness protection program. “Among the secretaries, siya ang dapat bigyan ng award. Kasi siya ang lahat ng ito, lalo na sa witness protection program (she’s the one who should be given an award. Because this is all because of her, especially the witness protection program),” Santos said.
Maria Theresa, daughter of the slain media worker Joaquin Briones, told PCIJ she could not blame the witness for not showing up during the trial of her father’s murder. She said the witness must have been scared without the government's witness protection program.
“Naiintindihan ko naman ‘yung witness. [Baka inisip niya,] ‘Kung kayo, pamilya n’yo nga, walang magawa sa namatay n’yong kapatid, paano ninyo ako puproteksyunan?’ (I understand the witness. He might have thought, ‘If your family can’t do anything about your slain brother, how can you protect me?’” Maria Theresa said.
Trial venues were both moved in the Esperat and Maguindanao Massacre trials out of Tacurong and Maguindanao, respectively, where the masterminds exerted influence.
For the Maguindanao massacre, the bodies were also brought to South Cotabato, and medico legal officers were brought in from Camp Crame in Manila. The lawyers were afraid that local cops would contaminate the evidence.
Santos also advised families of victims to get involved immediately and hire their own lawyers who can monitor developments and keep the case alive, elements that are sometimes lacking in the floundering cases.
“Private complainants dapat laging may pronouncement na i-resolve na. Dapat ma sustain lang ang campaign (Private complainants must always demand to resolve the cases. The campaign must be sustained),” said Santos.
The role of the media community is also important. Newsrooms have been a united front in seeking justice for the killings of their colleagues though there are a few cases where organizations could not agree on whether or not some killings were linked to media work.
Que supported a candidate who lost to the incumbent that his writings attacked – Governor Joseph Cua. Que’s common-law spouse, Edralyn Pangilinan, claimed he masterminded the killing, detailing how the governor’s supposed aide Prince Lim Subion gave the orders and payments to Tacorda and two “John Does” to kill Que.
Cua vehemently dismissed the allegation, denying any motive to kill Que and close links to Subion. Que’s murder case didn’t go to trial after Tacorda recanted his testimony although the cop was found guilty in February 2020 in a separate case of frustrated murder. The masterminds in Que’s murder remain free.
Briones himself ran for public office, lost, and resumed media work. The Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) said he was not killed in the line of duty, but the columnist’s colleagues contested it, saying he received death threats for his reporting on illegal fishing, gambling, and drug trafficking.
Jonathan De Santos of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said isolating deaths of media workers based on beliefs that they were not killed “in the line of duty” have not been helpful.
“I think we have to see it first as a death of a journalist even if we might not personally consider them colleagues,” he told PCIJ. “Saka na ‘yung singilan kung pasok sila sa ‘standards’ natin, but primarily ay [dapat may] recognition na (Payback can come later once we’ve determined it meets our ‘standards,’ but primarily there must be recognition that…) this adds to a more dangerous environment for us,” De Santos said.
Indeed, there is no dearth of cases where families or colleagues of victims have questioned the direction of investigations.
In the case of Jobert “Polpog” Bercasio, a hard-hitting environmental reporter in Sorsogon shot dead by two motorcycle-riding gunmen while he was on his way home from work on Sept. 14, 2020, the local police filed charges against members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Local media called the investigation a “comical revelation.”
“We all know that it had been a convenient escape for the PNP to attribute crimes to the NPA whenever they fail to solve them, for how can the rebels argue against the accusation?” said a statement issued by the Sorsogon media.
Bercasio often posted on his Facebook account about claims of jueteng (illegal numbers game) and illegal logging against local politicians and the provincial environment office. An hour before he died, he posted about trucks that allegedly did not have permits and used fake licenses traveling from a “quarry area” in Bulan town, Sorsogon. Four days prior to this, he had also uploaded photos of trucks which he said were hauling shipping materials from a huge quarrying operation in the same town.
New Marcos administration
Impunity reared its ugly head very early in the new Marcos administration. The murder of radio broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa on Oct. 3, 2022 by motorcycle-riding assailants near his residence in Las Piñas laid bare how dangerous the Philippines has become for media workers.
That Mabasa operated from the capital region of Metro Manila, where media groups are generally more organized in their efforts to protect each other and to respond to threats, underscored the brazenness of the attack.
The patterns are the same. He was a hard-hitting radio broadcaster, he was killed by hired hitmen, and the alleged mastermind is a powerful government official.
The slain media worker’s brother, Roy Mabasa, has taken on the search for justice, posting on his Facebook page daily updates on the status of the investigation. He also took over his brother’s radio program. But Roy told PCIJ he wasn’t satisfied with the investigation, and their lawyer said they’re not getting the cooperation they needed.
Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch Philippines said "the onus is on the Marcos administration and specifically the DOJ" to bring not just Mabasa's killers to justice but to make the environment safe for journalists.
A week before the 13th year commemoration of Maguindanao massacre, on Nov. 23, 2022, Santos told PCIJ she was hopeful there would be some news about the cases. The commemoration came and went, however. There was no announcement.
How much longer can victims wait for the final judgment? Marcos is the 4th Philippine president since the massacre happened in 2009.
“Huwag naman nila patagalin ng katulad ng mga 10 years o 15 years. Kahit naman magbigay sila ng timetable na five years (They shouldn’t make it last 10 or 15 years. Even a timetable of five years is acceptable),” said Santos.
Santos said she hoped that the Supreme Court (SC) would order the Court of Appeals (CA) to expedite the cases. Only the SC can order the CA but perhaps, she said the DOJ could push it on behalf of the president. “Perhaps DOJ, as alter ego of president can sound off [the High Court].”
Many other cases need attention. In Pangasinan, the murder trial of commentator and newspaper columnist Virgilio Maganes can use more support after a second suspect was arrested in September 2022, offering hopes that the case could be resolved and the mastermind identified.
The case is pending at RTC Pangasinan Branch 50.
Maganes worked for local radio dwPR Radyo Asenso and weekly newspaper Northern Watch. In 2016, he survived a slay attempt after playing dead. A note was left, which read, “I’m a drug pusher, don’t emulate me,” according to reports.
Four years later, he was killed outside his home in Villasis, Pangasinan on Nov. 10, 2020. He sustained six gunshot wounds from two men “riding-in-tandem” aboard a motorcycle, and died at the scene, according to reports.
Two of three alleged gunmen were arrested. Romar Bustillos was arrested in 2020 while Noe Ducay was arrested recently, in September 2022.
Bustillos confessed to acting as the pointman and claimed that Ducay, who was in Pangasinan’s most wanted list and had been previously arrested for illegal possession of firearms, was the triggerman, based on initial court findings.
Three witnesses have so far already testified and the prosecution was set to continue presenting evidence in the forthcoming hearings, according to a letter the court sent to PCIJ. END
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