Nov. 23, 2017
On this day eight years ago, a crime that set new records in vileness was committed on a hilltop in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
There, gunmen led by a power-hungry madman took the lives of 58 persons, including 32 media workers, in the worst incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the deadliest single attack on the press ever.
It should not have been too farfetched to hope—even expect—that an outrage of such magnitude would have shamed government into ensuring justice was swift and that such killings ended or, at least, substantially reduced. It was, sadly, too much to hope for. Eight years hence, justice remains as elusive as it was on November 23, 2009.
And, journalists continue to be murdered with impunity. The total to date—and much as we hope for the opposite, all indications are the toll will keep on mounting—is 178 since 1986, the last five killed in the year and a half since President Rodrigo Duterte took office.
We have been informed that with only three more principal accused in the massacre trial still to present their witnesses, it would be reasonable to hope for a resolution by next year. We do hope so and pray it will be a triumph for justice. However, the numbers do not offer too much reason for optimism.
Of the 198 suspects in the massacre, only 115 have been arrested and 112 have been arraigned. Four of those arrested have died in the course of the proceedings, including primary suspect Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr.
Out of the 112, 70 were allowed by the court to post bail, including Ampatuan Sr.’s youngest son, Sajid Islam Uy Ampatuan, who was freed in 2015 after posting P11.6-million bail. This number also included 17 police officers who were allowed by the court to post bail because of weak evidence.
As of July 11, 2017, 102 of the accused remained in detention, including main suspects former Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr.; former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan; and Chief Insp. Sukarno Dicay, police chief of the 15th Regional Mobile Group that was conducting the checkpoint when the incident happened.
But as we have pointed out before, notwithstanding its shocking magnitude, the Ampatuan massacre was not an aberration but an inevitable result of the rotten system of governance that afflicts our country.
It is a governance of expediency by which all presidents, bar none, court the loyalty of the warlords, crime lords and corrupt clans who infest Philippine politics and rule their bailiwicks like fiefdoms, because this is the only way they can rule effectively.
In exchange, they choose to close their eyes to the plunder and violence that mark so much of our local politics. Thus are clans like the Ampatuans allowed to flourish and wield such power they actually believe they can literally get away with murder. And in most cases they do. Only the worldwide shock and outrage that followed the massacre forced (then President) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to turn against the clan that was among her staunchest supporters.
And so the killings continue, abetted by the same system of governance that made the Ampatuan massacre inevitable. Today, in fact, the danger has, if anything, worsened, spurred by a president who not only has justified media killings as fitting retribution for supposed corruption—a blanket accusation not backed by any proof—and openly incites the harassment of media outfits and individual journalists he deems objectionable.
But unfortunately for this and any other administration that would seek to suppress the independent Philippine media, we survived Ferdinand Marcos’ attempt to control the free flow of information and know we will do so again should any regime try a repeat.
We will not be silenced or coerced into surrendering our duty to serve the people’s right to know.
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines