by Melanie Dominski
Sr. Program Associate, Freedom of Expression Campaign
Two years ago today, in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, 100 armed guards overtook a civilian convoy and executed the passengers in what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 57 victims, 32 were journalists, making the incident the deadliest single attack against journalists on record and earning the Philippines the second-place slot on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries for members of the media. In the course of this brutal attack, at least four female journalists were allegedly raped prior to being executed; virtually all of the female victims reportedly suffered genital mutilation, and many of the victims were beheaded.
In the weeks that followed the massacre, the government arrested Andal Ampatuan Jr. as the suspected mastermind, along with his two brothers and other prominent members of the clan, including the patriarch, Andal Sr. These arrests represented an important step toward addressing the problem of impunity in the Philippines, where a total of 121 journalists have been killed since 1986 and only 8 percent of those cases have led to convictions, according to the Philippines-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
However, despite the positive measures taken by the Philippine government, as CMFR’s trial watch illustrates, the country’s strained judicial system does not have the capacity to handle such a large and high-profile case. Over the past two years, only 93 of nearly 200 suspects in the massacre have been taken into custody, and only 63 of them have been charged. No one has been convicted to date.
In addition to an overburdened legal system, corruption and harassment continue to play a significant role in undermining justice in the Philippines. In fact, the Maguindanao massacre trial is being conducted in Manila, instead of the Ampatuans’ home region, in an attempt to protect witnesses and prosecutors. Nevertheless, reports indicate that the Ampatuans have repeatedly approached witnesses and members of the victims’ families with large bribes in exchange for their silence, and many believe the Ampatuans are responsible for the mysterious deaths of several witnesses. With the trial still in full swing, many are left wondering whether impunity will continue to reign in the country.
Unfortunately, the killing of journalists and impunity for the perpetrators are not unique to the Philippines. Over the past decade, more than 500 journalists have been killed around the world, and in 9 out of 10 cases, the killers walk free. Among the most infamous murders is that of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in 2006 after years of reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya, but she is only one of 52 journalists who have been killed in Russia since the CPJ began keeping track in 1992. The murderers of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, killed in May 2011 after exposing alleged links between Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s navy, similarly remain at large. In settings where even well-intentioned governments are all but overwhelmed by insurgencies or organized crime—as in Mexico, where Valentin Valdes Espinosa was killed in 2010 after apparently crossing the Zetas drug gang—killers are almost never brought to justice.
In an effort to demand justice for those who have been killed for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) recently established November 23, the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, as the International Day to End Impunity. The Philippines should set an example for all countries where impunity prevails by ensuring that justice is served, that journalists need not live in fear, and that those who kill journalists can no longer walk free.