A Call for Transparency and Vigilance

Statement of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the November 23 Movement

THE AMPATUAN Massacre trial has entered a crucial phase. This week, barely two weeks after the 15th month since 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers were brutally murdered in one of the worst attacks on democracy and press freedom in Philippine history, the Court of Appeals will be deciding on the petition for certiorari filed by suspended ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

Should the petition prosper, Mr. Ampatuan will be dropped from the list of those accused of masterminding and carrying out the massacre of November 23, 2009, and will be released from detention. If new evidence is found to once more include him in the conspiracy and multiple murder charges, the process will have to begin all over again. There is also the fear that, like a number of other accused Ampatuans who are still at large, he will manage to avoid arrest.

Mr. Ampatuan filed his petition for certiorari against Alberto Agra, the last Justice Secretary of the Arroyo government. On the basis of the weakest defense against criminal charges, the alibi that he was not in Maguindanao at the time of the massacre, Mr. Ampatuan was dropped by Mr. Agra last year from the list of persons accused of planning the massacre and participation in the killing of the 58 victims. Mr. Agra later reversed himself, and returned the name of Mr. Ampatuan among the accused. Mr. Ampatuan has since filed his petition with the Court of Appeals, alleging abuse of discretion on the part of Mr. Agra for reversing himself.

We are not prejudging the guilt or innocence of Mr. Ampatuan. Both also assume that the justices of the Court of Appeals will base their decision on the strength and credibility of the evidence Mr. Ampatuan has submitted. But for the significance of the trial and its relevance to Philippine democracy and press freedom, it is imperative that the process be perceived as credible and beyond question.

Should the perpetrators of the massacre, whoever they are, literally get away with murder, it will send the strongest message yet that neither the murder of journalists in such numbers, or that of politicians' families and their partisans, can move the justice system to begin to dismantle the culture of impunity, or exemption from punishment, that has taken deep roots in Philippine society. It will also encourage further killings. It is crucial not only to the media, but also and even more importantly, to Philippine democracy, that the Ampatuan Massacre trial deliver to the kin of the slain the justice that has eluded so many in this country.

Some of the families of the slain journalists have filed a petition for two CA justices—Danton Bueser and Marlene Gonzales—to inhibit themselves from hearing the Zaldy Ampatuan petition because of doubts over their impartiality. Both had inhibited themselves from hearing the petition of Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr. They should have disclosed their reasons for doing so as mandated by the new code of judicial conduct, but did not. Why should they then be part of a panel that will decide the Zaldy Ampatuan petition which is intimately related to the first petition?

We call for complete transparency on the part of the Court of Appeals. But it is also for the country's media, journalists' and media advocacy organizations as well as civil society groups, people's organizations and the public at large to vigilantly monitor the process so its integrity can be accurately evaluated in keeping with their sovereign right as citizens to have their voices heard on matters of public concern and urgency.

Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
November 23 Movement
Philippine Center for Photojournalism
Center for Community Journalism and Development
College Editors' Guild of the Philippines
March 2, 2011

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