MANILA, Philippines – “There is no more culture of impunity.”
Presidential Communications Operations Office Sonny Coloma made this declaration as he took exception to criticism of the Aquino administration’s record of media killings and supposed inaction in the Maguindanao massacre case.
“Gusto po nating mabura iyong stigma ng culture of impunity. At iyan po [ay] isang mahalagang batayan ng ating Pangulo noong hiningi niya ang mandato ng ating mga mamamayan, to erase this culture of impunity. Siguro naman po makatuwirang sabihin na sa kasalukuyan ay hindi na po umiiral iyan,” Coloma said in a Palace press briefing on Friday, November 22.
(We want to erase the stigma of a culture of impunity. And that is one of the important reasons why the President asked for the people’s mandate, to erase this culture of impunity. Perhaps it will be just to say that at present, that no longer exists.)
Coloma said calling Aquino “impunity king” is excessive and baseless.
“Let us look at the definition of the word ‘impunity.’ The word impunity means abuses that go unchecked, authorities do not oppose these and do not take enough measures to stop crime,” he said in Filipino.
“Is it right to say this about the current administration? If we recall, that is one of the platforms of our President when he ran for office: to restore justice in our country and that is one of the reasons why our citizens trusted him.”
The Secretary was responding to a pooled editorial of journalists and human rights advocates who slammed the Aquino administration’s inaction in the Maguindanao massacre, one of the worst cases of election violence in Philippine history.
The Ampatuan massacre on November 23, 2009 left 58 people dead, 32 of them journalists. The Ampatuan clan is accused of masterminding the massacre to stop the wife of now Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu from filing a certificate of candidacy on his behalf.
The date has since been marked as the International Day to End Impunity.
The editorial criticized Aquino for failing to dismantle paramilitary groups and investigating the alleged use of public funds by the Ampatuans or their private army.
The statement also noted that “media killings continue with impunity and justice for the victims remain elusive.” It cited data from media watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility that 19 journalists were killed under Aquino’s watch.
“There is a simple explanation to call President Aquino the country’s “Impunity King”: He allows the perpetuation of the culture of impunity as he has not done anything to end it. This is the main reason why the killings and harassment of journalists continue,” the editorial stated.
Those who signed the editorial include the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines – Davao chapter, the Burgos Media Center, the UP College of Mass Communication, the UP Law Center and Karapatan.
Freest press in the region, world?
Coloma questioned media and rights groups’ count of media killings, saying there were times when a driver of a network, employees of “fly-by-night” newspapers, and a blocktimer selling skin whiteners were included in the tally.
“We do not want to engage in fault-finding but just a clarification, a call for objectivity so we put things in the proper context and perspective,” he said. “Whether it’s media killing or not, it is the state’s duty to protect each citizen so we are working to solve all cases.”
“When we observed World Press Freedom Day, one entity said we are the most dangerous place in the world for journalists …. [but] if you remove the Maguindanao figures, the problem will not be that serious or bad,” he added.
Coloma also said journalists and rights groups have to make their assessment in the context of “a country that can rightfully claim to have the freest press, if not in the region, in the world.”
He even cited the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, where journalists were criticized for irresponsible reporting.
“Here in our country, President Aquino’s policy is clear: no prior restraint. If you recall during the hostage taking, many people told the President to punish the journalists who allegedly aggravated the situation. The President did not heed that call because his stand is firm: no prior restraint.”
‘Aquino rhetoric didn’t change reality’
Coloma also addressed criticism about what human rights groups called the glacial pace of the Maguindanao massacre case.
The journalists and activists’ editorial noted that no perpetrator in the case was convicted, 3 crucial witnesses were killed, only 104 out of 195 accused have been read charges while 88 suspects remain at large. The statement noted that analysts said the trial could last 24 years.
Coloma said the administration is working on improving the investigative and prosecutorial processes but it can only do so much.
“We don’t deny that the process is slow. But let us take into account that it involves an unprecedented number of witnesses and unprecedented number of motions …. All this is processed by our judiciary and we recognize the separation of powers. The executive cannot intervene in the judicial process,” he said.
Coloma said the Aquino administration took other actions like seeking to strengthen the Witness Protection Program, and pushing for the passage of the whistleblowers’ bill.
Yet in an article, Human Rights Watch’s Carlos Conde said the problem of the Maguindanao massacre case is more than a failure of judicial process. Conde cited the threats that backhoe operator Bong Andal received to dissuade him from testifying against the powerful Ampatuan clan.
“It’s a cruel reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians critical of the status quo that they too might be targeted with impunity. The human rights rhetoric of the government of President Benigno Aquino III has not transformed the dangerous reality on the ground. As Aquino enters the last half of his six-year term in office, he should recognize that he will be ultimately judged by his actions, not his words," Conde said.
‘PH haven of impunity’
Journalists and rights groups that signed the editorial said beyond the Maguindanao massacre, other cases remain unsolved like the murder of environmentalist and broadcaster Gerry Ortega, where alleged mastermind ex-Palawan Gov Joel Reyes was acquitted “on a mere technicality.”
The government has yet to arrest other human rights violators-turned-fugitives like retired Maj Gen Jovito Palparan Jr.
“Impunity is alive because there are whistleblowers of corruption who get harassed and intimidated, if not permanently silenced, and the masterminds remain unpunished," the editorial stated.
They said impunity persists because Aquino even rewarded the “most rabid perpetrators of human rights violations” instead of punishing them.
“Gen. Eduardo Año (implicated in the abduction of peasant activist Jonas Burgos) and Gen. Aurelio Baladad (charged with criminal and civil cases in relation to the arrest and detention of the 43 health workers or the Morong 43) are but two faces of impunity under Aquino," the editorial added.
In a statement, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)-Asia Pacific also said the Philippines “holds a dubious international mantle on impunity.”
“With 4 years now past and predictions of trials spanning out to 24 years, it’s time President Aquino came good on the promise to provide protection for journalists and deliver justice for victims of media killings.”
“The Philippines currently lays claim to being a key haven for impunity – a title no leader should be proud of,” the IFJ said. – Ayee Macaraig / Rappler.com