A case that would make headlines everywhere: on the way to the station, a popular radio presenter is shot dead by two motorcyclists. What follows is a dramatic investigation involving the country’s top prison officer, whose conspicuous lifestyle was the subject of a recent radio report.
But the fact that the wheels of justice appear to be turning for the murdered broadcast journalist Percival Mabasa, commonly known as Percy Lapid, is particularly newsworthy given the number of journalists killed with impunity in the Philippines. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines seventh on a list of 11 countries with “the worst track record of solving murders of journalists in the past decade.” The country has been on the organization’s Global Impunity Index for 15 consecutive years.
Within a month of the Oct. 3 shooting, investigators arrested Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag, along with Deputy Security Officer Ricardo Zulueta and several inmates believed to have been involved in the attack. Last week President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. urged the relevant authorities to move on “until we are satisfied” and the Attorney General challenged Mr Bantag to face his charges “like a man”. On Tuesday, the Justice Department ordered subpoenas to be served on the suspects.
While friends and commentators say the quick response is more of an anomaly than a burgeoning trend, they see cause for hope. So far, Mr Mabasa’s case proves that when it’s up to the government to solve a journalist’s murder, the authorities can let it be done.
“While we applaud the development of this case, we know for sure that it came at a time when a new President is making every effort to present himself as a leader committed to human rights,” said Carlos Conde, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “If Marcos Jr. didn’t mention the Mabasa case, it gets brushed aside.”
Mr Mabasa is one of three journalists killed since President Marcos took office in July. Radio station Rey Blanco was stabbed to death on September 18 in Mabinay, a town in Negros Oriental province. Benharl Kahil, an editorial cartoonist, was shot dead on November 5 in Lebak, in the southern Philippine province of Sultan Kudarat. Both cases are still under investigation and the perpetrators have not been identified.
Timing aside, it also doesn’t hurt that Mr. Mabasa was a prominent Manila journalist, says Jonathan de Santos, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
“Most of the journalists killed were stationed in the provinces, where there is little government or media attention. Another likely reason why authorities were quick to respond to this case is because Mabasa had many listeners and followers both on air and online,” he says.
“Culture of Impunity”
According to the NUJP, at least 198 Filipino journalists have been killed since 1986, and judging by the latest government figures, fewer than a third have been convicted.
“Most cases remain unsolved,” says Mr. De Santos. “The culture of impunity still prevails.”
And while some hope justice for Mr Mabasa will prevent future violence, media watchdogs are cautious.
Jason Gutierrez, president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines and a personal friend of the Mabasa family, says the fight for justice for Mr Mabasa is “far from over”.
“His murder was just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “It saddens me, but we have to admit that this case has become horrific evidence that the country has many problems with its judicial system and the web of corruption is a tangled mess.”
Gunman Joel Escorial surrendered to police days after the shooting and began naming co-conspirators. Shortly thereafter, Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña, an inmate at New Bilibid prison who was alleged to have acted as an intermediary on behalf of the mastermind of Mr Mabasa’s assassination, died in custody.
An independent autopsy found he was suffocated with a plastic bag. Authorities have charged Mr Bantag, the now suspended BuCor boss, with both murders.
fight against the cold
When journalists are killed with impunity, it can have a serious chilling effect on the press.
The fact that Mr. Mabasa was killed in Las Piñas City on the outskirts of Manila could compound this self-censorship. Danny Arao, a journalist and associate professor at the University of the Philippines, says the last time a journalist was killed in the capital was in 2016.
“How many times have we seen some journalists in the provinces, where most of the media killings took place, toned down in their reporting after the murder of a co-media worker?” says Mr. Arao. “A lot! … The murder of [Mabasa] has shaken some media practitioners in the capital region, not only community journalists but also those working in the mainstream media.”
Mr. Arao believes it is the media’s duty to resist this sense of intimidation.
“We shouldn’t let our young people who are planning to enter the media industry shy away from exploring investigative journalism and hard-hitting political commentary,” he says. “We must push back harder and harder each day until justice is done.”
If there is one positive finding from the Mabasa case, it is that pushing back can work.
Many journalists say that a key reason the national government mobilized its Justice Department and law enforcement agencies to respond to Mr Mabasa’s murder was the community response.
“Immediately after the news that Mabasa had been killed, media professionals, students and human rights activists rallied to denounce the killing and to put pressure on the government to hold the perpetrators accountable because we know that freedom of the press is not complete when it is.” Journalists are being killed,” says Mr. De Santos, a news editor at Philstar.com.
For Mr. Conde, the whole situation surrounding Mabasa’s murder “could prove to be an impetus for the Philippine government to respond to the safety and protection of media workers”.
“The challenge for Mr. Marcos Jr. is not only to stop the killings and human rights abuses, but also to ensure justice and accountability for those who have been killed and whose rights have been violated,” he says.
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