Remembering Ampatuan: Impunity and injustice flourish in the Philippines

Friday, November 21, 2014
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Friday, November 21, 2014
By Clare Shrybman On the morning of November 23, 2009, a convoy of seven cars was driving through the Maguidanao province in the Philippines transporting civilians and journalists. Along its route, it was stopped by a roadblock of more than 100 men. The men, toting military grade weaponry, murdered all the passengers and tossed their lifeless bodies into mass graves crudely dug into the countryside. The convoy was on its way to file candidacy papers for Esmael Mangudadatu, a political clan leader, in his bid for governor of Maguindanao. Mangudadatu had heard rumours of an attack from opposing clan member Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of the town which bears his name. After a failed request for protective assistance from the military, Mangudadatu sent a convoy filled with women, children and the press imagining that the presence of these parties would prevent an attack. The cars were stopped along with a couple vehicles not associated with the convoy. The women were raped and all passengers in the convoy were executed. The cars were crushed and tossed into mass graves, along with the bodies of the 58 victims, 32 of whom were journalists and media workers. The perpetrators were men, clan members and police believed to be under Mayor Ampatuan’s direction. This Sunday, November 23, marks the fifth anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre. This horrific atrocity was the “single bloodiest attack on the media,” and the largest example of impunity for crimes against journalists in recent history. This was a systematic, premeditated massacre of women, children and the press, ordered by government officials, and executed by law enforcement. Yet there has not been a single conviction in their murders. Witnesses of the attack stated they saw police vehicles alongside the 100 man roadblock, and much of the forensic evidence collected at the crime scene has proved inconclusive, with many suspecting it had been tampered with. Four witnesses in the trial have been killed, and family members of the deceased have reported being approached with threats and offered bribes to change their testimony. Trial prosecutor Leo Dacera was found murdered in his apartment in 2010. The ongoing trial for the massacre encourages little hope for justice, moving at such a slow pace it is expected to take upwards of 20 years to resolve. Few of the suspected perpetrators of the slaughter have even faced charges. National army colonel Medardo Geslani, suspected of involvement in the massacre, was promoted to general this past year. The poor handling of this crime is also representative of the broader climate for journalists in the Philippines. According to research from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 90 per cent of all media killings in the Philippines since 1992 have gone unpunished. In the years between 1986 and the massacre, 104 journalists died violently in the country. The International Federation of Journalists has labeled the Philippines as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists this century, second only to Iraq. Remembering the atrocity of the Ampatuan Massacre also helps to highlight the ongoing threats to the press and free speech still prevalent around the globe. As the trial is providing little to no justice for the murdered civilians and journalists, international education and awareness also helps to promote and place pressure on the government of the Philippines to not let this horrific crime, and others since, go unpunished.

International Campaign to End Impunity

IFEX’s campaign to end impunity is commemorating the anniversary of the massacre on November 23. The campaign is asking supporters to keep the memories of the victims alive by tweeting for justice and using #AmpatuanMassacre. Tweets sent with this hashtag will be pulled into a “digital wall” depicting the faces of the victims, with these messages of solidarity causing the victims’ faces to momentarily brighten. On November 23, a candle-lit vigil will be held in Manila by IFEX member the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) to show solidarity with the journalists lost in the 2009 Massacre and to end impunity around the globe. The event will take place at 6 p.m. local time. The digital wall will be projected throughout the event, signifying that this atrocity will never be forgotten. Supporters are also asked to hold their own vigils around the world to show support for the campaign. Echoing IFEX members around the world, CJFE continues to call on the Philippine government to bring the perpetrators and masterminds of this heinous crime to justice. To learn more about the Ampatuan Massacre Trial, please see the interactive timeline below: Courtesy of CMFR
Clare Shrybman, a graduate of the post baccalaureate journalism degree from the University of King's College, is a freelance journalist in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @Clareshryb

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