On the day of the crime … Ampatuan Jr. told his father by phone – with its loudspeaker on – that he had blocked the convoy. The father ordered him to gun down everybody but spare the media, to which Ampatuan Jr. replied: “No … somebody could talk if we won’t wipe out everybody.”

– An Ampatuan Family Housekeeper, Testifying in the Trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr.


Two years ago today, 32 journalists, along with 26 civilians, were slaughtered on a grassy hilltop in the Philippine province of Maguindanao. A convoy of supporters of a local gubernatorial hopeful, Ismael Mangudadatu, had been on its way that morning to file Mr. Mangudadatu’s official candidacy papers.  One hour into the journey, the convoy was allegedly halted by members of a private army reportedly belonging to a rival candidate, who forced people from their vehicles, lined them up, and executed them.  The killers then dumped the bodies into shallow graves dug several days earlier.  Among the victims were Mr. Mangudadatu’s wife, aunt and sister.

A horrifying episode of inhuman violence, the Maguindanao massacre stands as the single deadliest attack on the media in modern times.  It points, however, to a much larger trend of deadly crimes against journalists in the Philippines and impunity for those who commit them.  According to statistics from the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippines is, after Iraq, the world’s most dangerous country for media professionals.   Since 1986, when democratic rule in the country was restored, 121 journalists have been murdered because of their profession.  Among those cases, there have been only 10 convictions –– all for triggermen.  Not once in 25 years has the mastermind of a journalistic killing in the Philippines been brought to justice.

In the Maguindanao case, suspicion quickly fell upon the rival candidate, Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the heir of a historically-powerful family allied with then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Mr. Ampatuan turned himself in for questioning two days after the massacre and was charged a week later with murder.  Authorities later arrested his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., then governor of Maguindanao province, along with four other immediate family members.  In total, 195 people have been charged in connection with the slaughter; of those, 60 are still at large and none have been convicted.  The trial of Mr. Ampatuan Jr. began late last summer, but corruption, intrigue and the torpidity of the Philippine justice system have limited progress and raised the familiar spectre of complete derailment.

For both the Philippine nation as a whole and for the families of the victims, however, business as usual would be unacceptable.  The organisers and executors of this atrocity must be held accountable.  In his inaugural speech last year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III remarked, “There can be no reconciliation without justice.  When we allow crimes to go unpunished, we give consent to their occurring over and over again.”  Indeed, the systemic failure to punish those responsible for the killing of journalists has resulted in the proliferation of those acts.  If anything good is to come out of what transpired in Maguindanao, it will be the turning of the tide in the campaign to end impunity for crimes against journalists in the Philippines.


The events of 23 November 2009 must be understood within the political culture of Mindanao, an island roughly the size of Austria and consisting of 22 provinces, including Maguindanao.  Since the 1960s, Mindanao has been the site of a violent Islamic separatist movement, which has hampered the Philippine government’s efforts to bring the island under its purview.  To compensate, Manila has largely tolerated — and in the case of the Arroyo administration, actively encouraged — the development of private, family-run militias that police and maintain stability on the island.  In turn, these families, as an International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) fact-finding mission report noted, “effectively run various aspects of government within the region.”

The Ampatuans, one such historically powerful family on Mindanao, have long dominated Maguindanao politics and enjoyed particularly close ties with Mrs. Arroyo, in office from 2001 to 2010.  The latter won the vote of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, of which Maguindanao forms a part, by an overwhelming majority in the 2004 presidential election, leading to widespread accusations that the Ampatuans had rigged the process in her favor.  In return for their support, the Arroyo government allowed the Ampatuans to further consolidate their rule.  According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), under the Arroyo administration the Ampatuan clan “amass[ed] great wealth and unchecked power, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launches and state-of-the-art assault rifles.”

At the time of the massacre, Mr. Ampatuan Sr. was the governor of Maguindanao province (he had previously been mayor of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao’s capital, originally appointed to that position by the late-dictator Ferdinand Marcos).  His son, Mr. Ampatuan Jr. was the mayor of Datu Unsay, a municipality near Shariff Aguak, but was preparing to run for the governorship being vacated by his father in May 2010.  Relations between the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus, another powerful Maguindanao clan, had reportedly worsened well before Mr. Mangudadatu made his intention to challenge the Ampatuan dynasty in the election. Mr. Mangudadatu was at that time vice-mayor of Buluan, in the province’s far southeast.

Mr. Mangudadatu told local media that he had received death threats over his decision to compete for the governorship and decided that making the journey to Shariff Aguak to file the necessary paperwork would be too dangerous.  In his stead, he sent his wife and several female relatives, believing that the Ampatuans would not harm women.  “Under Islam, women are given respect and are not harmed, regardless of religion,” he would later tell a Manila court.  Accompanying the female relatives were several lawyers and 32 journalists, for whom the escalating rivalry between the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus — and in particular the electoral provocation — was a major story.

The convoy left Buluan that morning around 9 a.m.  Little over an hour later, Genalyn Mangudadatu phoned her husband.   “We have been stopped by so many men here. Armed men,” she said, in what would be some of her last words.  The men assumed control of the vehicles, including those of several passersby, and drove them down a side road to a grassy area where they allegedly removed the victims from their cars and allegedly shot them at close range.  Afterwards, a backhoe bearing the words “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.” was used to bury the bodies in the previously prepared gravesite.

The Trial: Challenges and Possibilities

Due to the particularly gruesome nature of the events in Maguindanao, the Philippine government has been under strong domestic and international pressure to reverse the pattern of impunity and ensure that the masterminds of this heinous crime are held responsible.  Two years later, however, it remains unclear whether concrete progress has been made.  Despite good intentions on the part of the Aquino administration and a series of procedural victories designed to increase transparency, the case against the accused Ampatuan family members remains severely hampered by a weak judiciary and ponderous trial rules.

The power of the Ampatuan family and its extensive network of allies and contacts in itself constitutes a threat to the proceedings, observers have argued.  The trial of Mr. Ampatuan Jr. began late last summer, gathering momentum when a longtime family housekeeper testified that the clan had planned the massacre together over dinner.  A police officer who witnessed the attack told the court that Mr. Ampatuan Jr. had personally killed 40 of the victims.  But a key witness for the prosecution, Suwaib Uphan, who himself participated in the massacre, was murdered this past June before he could testify.  Human Rights Watch noted that Mr. Uphan did not receive the government protection he had requested in exchange for his testimony (the Philippines has a notoriously weak witness-protection programme).  In August, a court interpreter quit after allegedly being threatened by the Ampatuans, forcing a delay as the court scrambled to find another translator of Maguindanaoan.  Additionally, several family members of those deceased have said that the defense had offered them money––to the tune of a half-million dollars––to withdraw from the case.

Mr. Ampatuan Sr., who according to witnesses gave the ultimate order for the convoy to be attacked, was finally arraigned on 1 June, though he continues to delay proceedings by citing various medical conditions, armed with allegedly fabricated reports from nonexistent doctors. Two weeks ago, an appellate court affirmed the indictment of Zaldy Ampatuan, Mr. Ampatuan Jr.’s brother, paving the way for the former’s arraignment.  Charges had been dropped against Zaldy Ampatuan in April 2010 due to lack of evidence, were later reinstated, and then again thrown into flux in July when he offered to become a state witness.  The petition was blocked by Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima, a move supported by the Philippine National Union of Journalists, which viewed Zaldy Ampatuan’s offer as an attempt by the Ampatuan family to infiltrate and derail the state’s case.  The group released a statement calling him a “wolf in sheepskin”.

To be sure, the Ampatuan family’s alleged machinations and extrajudicial thuggery reflect the vulnerability of Philippine justice to outside pressures, particularly when such powerful defendants are involved.  But Melinda Quintos de Jesus, Executive Director of CMFR, sees as the greater challenge the everyday legal abuse, by both the defense and prosecution, of the Philippines’s labyrinthine trial rules. “We have institutionalized irrational delays in the conduct of the trial, which reflects an institutional weakness,” Ms. de Jesus told IPI.  She cited the fact that the defense has asked the judge in the case to recuse herself eight times, far more than would be allowed in other judicial systems.  Lawyers can drag bail proceedings out for months by incorporating the presentation of primary evidence.  “The whole system seems rigged for lawyers’ purposes,” Ms. de Jesus continued, “they can use the same dilatory mechanisms when it is beneficial for them.”

According to the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), 48 of the suspects have filed bail petitions, with many if not all planning to present rebuttal evidence in bail hearings.  Prima Quinsaysa, an FFFJ lawyer, said in an article on Bulatlat.com that the prosecution is “deluged with motions from the lawyers of the respondents,” many of which seek to exclude certain witnesses from the stand.  Both Ms. de Jesus and Ms. Quinsaysa indicated that the rules of court are not likely to change in near future.  “The Supreme Court is not very open to the idea,” Ms. Quinsaysa was quoted as saying.  Other institutional factors, most notably a flawed police investigation––the forensics team contaminated the crime scene through improper collecting techniques, among other mishaps–– have contributed to the trial’s agonisingly slow start.

Speaking to IPI, the Philippine Secretary of the Interior, Jesse Robredo, admitted, “In so far as the wings of justice are, it’s a little slow.”  He cautioned that judicial reform is a long process, adding that what is required most in this case is a “sense of urgency.”  Observers had hoped that President Aquino would galvanise that sense of urgency, particularly in contrast to his predecessor, Mrs. Arroyo, who presided over the deadliest period for Philippine journalists since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.  At least 79 journalists were murdered on her watch, according to statistics from IPI and CMFR.

Mr. Aquino has positioned himself as a reformer and has vowed to tackle corruption and expand the rule of law.  (Last week, authorities formally charged Mrs. Arroyo with electoral fraud and prevented her from leaving the country.)  Press-freedom and judicial-reform advocates were particularly heartened by the President’s selection of Ms. de Lima, the former chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, as Secretary of Justice, viewing the appointment as tangible evidence of his commitment to change. Government officials, furthermore, emphasise Mr. Aquino’s commitment to bringing the Maguindanao killers to justice.  In conversations with IPI, Mr. Robredo affirmed that resolving the case was a ‘priority’ for the President, and Edwin Lacierda, Presidential Secretary and Spokesman, said that Mr. Aquino viewed the case as a “litmus test for the Philippine government.”

But Mr. Lacierda was quick to qualify the President’s relationship to the legal proceedings, stressing that while Mr. Aquino is frustrated with the slow pace of the trial, the executive branch has little influence over the functioning of the judiciary, a view that other presidential advisers have repeated publicly.  This attitude is precisely what concerns Ms. de Jesus and other followers of the case.  In her view, Mr. Aquino “fails to appreciate the powers of the president and the influence he can wield, given our executive system.”  She noted specifically that it would have been well within Mr. Aquino’s authority to step in and speed up the arraignment of other members of the Ampatuan family.  Nevertheless, although many observers are disappointed with the president’s lack of visibility on the issue, few would deny that under his administration a real opportunity for progress exists.

Specific measures on the part of both civil society and Aquino administration officials to increase transparency and speed up trial proceedings have yielded mixed results thus far, and in some cases have been qualified so as to compromise their effectiveness. In June, the Philippine Supreme Court agreed to allow live coverage of the trial—apparently the first time it has ever done so—but stipulated that a day’s proceedings be broadcast in their entirety and without commercial breaks, thereby reducing the likelihood of a major network carrying the trial.  Moreover, the Court ruled that any audio-visual material from the trial may not be rebroadcast until a verdict has been reached.  Ms. de Jesus described the Court’s decision as generally having opened a “window of opportunity,” but noted further that the ruling has been placed on hold until a set of legal motions (Motions for Reconsideration) are resolved by the Supreme Court, which has been slow to take them up.

In July, the Supreme Court granted a petition filed by the National Press Club of the Philippines and the Alliance of Philippine Journalists to designate the court assigned to hear the Maguindanao case as “a special court which should have no other duties but the trial of Maguindanao massacre cases.”  The Court declared that Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City would not be assigned any new cases, although any pending cases will continue to be heard.  Certainly, this decision will allow the judge, Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, to focus her energies almost exclusively on the Ampatuan case.  Ms. Solis-Reyes has also called for hearings to occur three times a week, instead of the current twice a week format and to have five witnesses called per day (observers estimate that at least 500 witnesses will ultimately take the stand).  It is not known, however, whether this shift will be implemented.

It bears mentioning that perhaps the one aspect of the trial that has received uniform praise from observers is Ms. Solis-Reyes herself, a former public prosecutor who was assigned the case only after the first judge refused, citing security concerns.  Called a “woman of steel” with a “fierce resolve” by the Philippine news media, Ms. Solis-Reyes, who initially declined court security protection, “has taken each step by the book,” confirmed Ms. de Jesus.  Ms. Solis-Reyes appears to have handled as adroitly as possible the stalling techniques of the defense, on several occasions even angrily lambasted the defense in court for attempting to delay the trial proceedings.

The Future

Despite these positive signs, the fact remains that at least 60 suspects––the exact figures appear to differ slightly depending on the source––in the massacre still remain at large, including nine members of the Philippine National Police, according to a recent report by the Philippine Star newspaper.  Moreover, it remains far from certain that any of those already arraigned will face justice, particularly the powerful and well-connected Ampatuans.  Human-rights and press-freedom advocates fear that the continued use of procedural mechanisms as delaying tactics will drag out the trial for years, possibly beyond the statute of limitations.
The delays also threaten to collapse the trial’s momentum, an eventuality that could sound the death knell for the case.  Artemio V. Panganiban, former Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, outlined in a recent column in the Philippine Inquirer the dangers of prolonging the proceedings.  His comments are worth quoting in length:

Time has a way of warping justice, of making witnesses “forget,” or lose interest in the case, or become easy prey to corruption, undue influence and outright bribery, or worse, die. They could one day “disappear” or become strangely inaccessible… Documents could be “misplaced” or destroyed.

For many observers, the biggest challenge is maintaining outside interest of the kind that immediately succeeded the massacre two years ago.  “Given the chain of terrible news around the world, attention to this case will very likely fade away,” Ms. de Jesus told IPI, “but that kind of sustained news attention is exactly what is needed.”  To this end, international organisations and civil society have to remain committed to monitoring and reporting on the progress of both the trial and the efforts to arrest the remaining suspects.  Crucially, they must not shy from demanding accountability.  True advances in the battle against impunity in the Philippines will almost certainly require persistent pressure from the outside.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie says that the two-year anniversary of the massacre presents a chance to reinvigorate the quest for justice.  “Given the history of impunity in the Philippines and the challenges inherent in this particular case––and despite our serious concerns about the dilatory tactics of the defense––we are cautiously optimistic that some progress is being made,” she said.  “But the international community must stay vigilant in monitoring the application of the rule of law and insisting that President Aquino follow up his well-meaning words with effective action.  The Philippines simply cannot afford any more empty promises and business-as-usual outcomes.”

Press freedom was dealt a terrible blow on 23 November 2009.  Today, exactly two years later, IPI urges its partners, friends, and supporters to pause in remembrance of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre and to join the effort to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated in the Philippines—or anywhere else in the world.

Note: On 24 November, the International Press Institute will release its report on a press freedom mission to the Philippines which took place in September 2011.