#Journeyto30 License to kill
Epi Fabonan III (The Philippine Star) - June 5, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – They gathered at the house of Buluan, Maguindanao vice mayor Toto Mangudadatu to cover his wife’s filing of his Certificate of Candidacy as Maguindanao gubernatorial candidate in the 2010 elections. They covered the event with the intent of letting the public know the latest happenings in the tense and heavily contested local politics of the province.

They did not deserve to die.

Yet, in that infamous morning of Nov. 23, 2009, the 32 journalists who were with the Mangudadatu convoy were mercilessly gunned downed, some even beheaded, by heavily armed men belonging to Datu Unsay, Maguindanao mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of then-Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. The younger Ampatuan was Mangudadatu’s rival for the gubernatorial post.

When the military and other law enforcement units arrived at the crime scene, what they saw was reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s purge of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar during World War II. Using a backhoe belonging to the provincial government, a mass grave had been dug at a ravine in a secluded part of Ampatuan town where the 57 victims were hastily buried. Forensic examination of the bodies indicated that some of the women had been raped prior to their deaths, and some bodies had been beheaded.

The Maguindanao Massacre shocked the world as the single deadliest event for journalists in history. It shook the foundations of the Arroyo administration’s political ties in the region, being that the perpetrators were from a powerful clan and a known ally of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The president’s party Lakas-Kampi-CMD immediately stripped the Ampatuans of party membership. Arroyo also ordered the imposition of martial law in the province in an effort to hunt down the perpetrators.

On Nov. 26, 2009, Ampatuan Jr. surrendered to his brother and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Zaldy Ampatuan. Their father also surrendered on Dec. 5, 2009. The three were charged with murder, together with 198 other suspects. The father and his sons denied the charges against them.

Almost seven years after the massacre, none of the perpetrators have been convicted. The delivery of justice has been slow, with accusations that members of the Ampatuan family have paid government prosecutors large sums as bribes. The elderly Ampatuan hdied last year, while another suspect, Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, had been granted bail. The continuous delay in the trial of the suspects scoffs at the memory of those who died in the carnage.

The Maguindanao Massacre barges through our collective memory once again in light of recent comments that incoming president Rodrigo Duterte made in Davao City.

“Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a b****,” Duterte said during a press conference when asked to respond to questions regarding the recent killing of a journalist in Manila. 

While stressing that many journalists are honest and are only doing their duty of exposing corruption in government when they were killed, he also said that “…the extortionists, the vultures of journalism, this is the kind who are killed the most. If you are vulture of journalism, that is not my problem…the lowlifes in this category can die for all I care.” 

Duterte even cited the case of slain Davao City radio broadcaster Jun Pala as an example of vultures in journalism.

“The example here, if you’re from Davao City, is Pala. I don’t want to demean his memory but he was a rotten son of a b****. He deserved it,” said Duterte. 

Pala was a vocal critic of Duterte and had survived previous attempts on his life prior to his targeted killing in 2003.

Neither Pala nor the 32 journalists killed in the Maguindanao Massacre were charged or convicted of corruption, bribery or libel. Of the 176 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986, according to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), none have been charged or convicted of corruption, bribery or libel. 

Corruption within the media does occur, but no one can justify the murder of a corrupt journalist. There are laws to deal with corruption and malpractice in journalism that should be the recourse of individuals who feel slighted by journalists’ exposés, and not the barrel of a gun. 

The president is duty-bound by the Constitution to protect journalists’ – and everyone’s – lives from imminent threat of death or physical harm. 

The reign of impunity against freedom of the press in one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists simply must end.

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