By Michaela P. del Callar
Human rights and journalists organizations worldwide lashed out at the Arroyo administration yesterday for creating “a culture of impunity” that led to the massacre of at least 57 persons in Maguindanao province that included 30 journalists.
An international delegation of journalists led by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) will monitor the progress of the prosecution of those responsible for the carnage which the IFJ called as the biggest single atrocity against journalists in recent history.
Amnesty International (AI) said the government must urgently ensure that witnesses are protected and safeguard vital forensic evidence to ensure those responsible are brought to justice.
Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr, a member of the powerful Ampatuan family that has dominated local politics in Maguindanao province in the country’s restive Mindanao region, is now under arrest and faces multiple murder charges. He has denied involvement in the massacre.
A clear culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish under this government which must no longer be tolerated, the IFJ said in a statement.
A top official of the United Nations also called on the government to carry out a full and swift investigation into the “monstrous” massacre.
“This monstrous crime must not go unpunished,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement from the UN headquarters in Paris.
Bokova condemned the barbaric killings in Maguindanao province as “clearly an attack against democracy and democratic processes.”
Furthermore, she said the killing of journalists “violates the rights of the Philippine people to be freely and fairly informed of political developments.”
The journalists were travelling with politicians and political supporters to file nomination papers for a gubernatorial candidate in Maguindanao in the southern Philippines when the convoy was ambushed.
The IFJ also wrote President Arroyo to seek her full commitment in ensuring that those responsible for the massacre are held accountable “to the full limit of the law.”
“Journalists and the international media community are grieving and distraught at the failure of the Government of the Philippines to uphold its responsibility to protect our colleagues and to end the long-running culture of impunity for the murders of journalists in the Philippines,” the IFJ letter signed by IFJ general secretary Aidan White stated.
“We remind you that during your tenure, at least 75 journalists have been killed in the Philippines. Almost all have been killed in relation to their professional work. At last count, only four convictions had been secured for these killings,” IFJ wrote Arroyo.
The IFJ reminded Arroyo that the government is obliged under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006) to actively protect journalists and media workers reporting in conflict zones within their national borders, in accordance with their status as civilians under international law.
The IFJ said the international mission will be in the country from Dec. 7 to 10 “to support the National Union Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), provide solidarity to journalists and the families of the victims, and to send the clearest message possible to the government that this is an outrage they will not be allowed to forget.”
The IFJ noted that prior to the Maguindanao atrocity, at least 75 journalists had been killed under the Arroyo government and only four cases have seen successful prosecutions.
“Outside of Iraq, the Philippines has become the most dangerous country for journalists this century,” the group said.
The local media group NUJP also sought the forming of an independent commission, to include media representatives, to investigate the massacre, which was believed to have been masterminded by the Ampatuan clan, a powerful political ally of Mrs. Arroyo in Maguindanao, and the events that led to it.
The NUJP said the forming of an independent commission will help ensure that no whitewash will happen and to identify the roots and those responsible for the “unimaginable crime.”
The NUJP said in a statement it is also demanding the creation of a special court with a presiding judge of impeccable credentials to undertake the trial of the suspects.
The filing of charges against Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect in this barbarity, does not mean that justice for the 57 victims, their families and the Filipino people has been served, according to the NUJP.
The IFJ said it will call on its affiliates globally to join a day of solidarity on December 9 to coincide with the mission press conference, the day before International Human Rights day.
“One of the major stumbling blocks to justice for human rights violations in the Philippines has been the intimidation of witnesses, at times accompanied by bribes or other inducements,” Donna Guest, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program, said.
“Given the Ampatuan family’s history of using private militias to maintain their dominance in Maguindanao, there is every reason to fear for the safety of witnesses and the protection of evidence,” it said.
AI pointed out that the inability of local investigators to gather and process forensic and circumstantial evidence in prosecutions has led to an overreliance on eyewitness testimony.
“Media footage from the scene of the massacre shows little evidence of proper collection of forensic evidence,” AI said in a statement.
“The government has responded with encouraging speed and seriousness to this incident so far but they must demonstrate that they will put in place proper mechanisms to ensure there is transparent, credible accountability,” Guest said.
“This case, which has shocked the country and the world, cannot end in impunity as the vast majority of cases of political killings have in the past,” she added.
AI called on the government to invite assistance from the international community in conducting the technical aspects of this investigation.
“The European Union and the Philippine government have recently signed an agreement to improve the quality of investigations and prosecutions of extrajudicial executions in the Philippines,” it said.
AI said most witnesses were reported to lack confidence in the current witness protection program, and fear that, given prolonged delays in criminal proceedings, it will not be able to offer protection to them or their families which may be needed to extend over a number of years.
“In conjunction with lack of confidence in the impartiality of the police, fear of reprisals and a lack of an effective witness protection program, most investigations remain ineffective and fail to lead to the identification, arrest, trial and conviction of the perpetrators,” it said.