Today the world marks the 10-year anniversary of the single deadliest attack on the media in modern times. On November 23, 2009, 32 journalists along with 26 civilians were kidnapped from their convoy by armed gunmen and brutally murdered in the Philippine province of Maguindanao. Some were beheaded, female reporters were raped, and all their bodies were dumped in shallow graves.

The horrific violence sparked global condemnation and led to the arrest of over 115 people, including many from the powerful political family alleged to have masterminded the attack. A decade later, after years of delays, disruptions, and attempts to derail the trial, one of the principal suspects died and not one of those accused has yet been convicted, leaving dozens of families across the country without justice.

With a decision due to be announced in the main trial on December 20 following a lengthy and winding judicial process, the long and painful search for truth looks set to reach its finale. Failure to convict those responsible for ordering the executions would be an unprecedented tragedy for the victims and their loved ones. But an outcome resembling justice could offer the possibility of catharsis for a country and a profession long plagued by deadly crimes and rampant impunity for the killing of journalists.

Even then, with public attention waning and new killings and attacks occurring almost monthly, bringing out meaningful change in the Philippines remains extremely challenging. Many of the underlying issues that led to the massacre remain, and for many, the climate of violence and hostility towards the media has worsened under the presidency of Roderigo Duterte, further hampering hope for progress.

The Maguindanao massacre

The attack took place on the morning of November 23 on the island of Mindanao as a convoy of 58 people travelled to file election papers for a local vice mayor, Esmael Mangudadatu, who was running for governor. Among the group were 32 journalists who had been invited to cover the event, and whose presence were expected to deter a political attack. Sensing danger, Mangudadatu travelled separately.

Early in the journey the convoy was stopped at a roadside checkpoint near the town of Ampatuan by over 100 men belonging to a private militia who were armed with machine guns and machetes. The vehicles were then diverted onto a grassy hilltop nearby, where over the course of an hour, all those present were executed one by one and buried in previously dug graves, along with the vehicles. Among those killed were members of Mangudadatu’s family, lawyers, drivers, and the journalists. Four of the female journalists were raped.

Ampatuan family

An international outcry followed and the Philippine authorities imposed a state of emergency on the region. After the massacre suspicion quickly fell on the rival candidate in the election, Andal Ampatuan, Jr, heir of the Ampatuan family, a well-connected and politically powerful clan that had been in control of Maguindanao for decades. Its patriarch, Andal Ampatuan, Sr, served as Maguindanao’s governor from 2001 to 2009. He was a close ally of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and belonged to her political party, Lakas-Kampi-CMD.

Underpinning this political dominance was a “private army” of 2,000 to 5,000 armed men made up of government-supported militia, local police, and military personnel. This force had been used to kill, abduct and disappear political challengers and their family members over the years, with complete impunity. After 2007, tensions had been high between the Ampatuan family and another powerful clan, the Mangudadatu family, who had begun to challenge the Ampatuans for control of the province. Before the 2009 election, retribution had been promised if Esmael Mangudadatu dared register, with the latter receiving several death threats.

Days after the bloodshed, Ampatuan Jr turned himself in for questioning and was quickly charged with mass murder. Authorities later arrested and charged Ampatuan Sr, who had allegedly planned the massacre over dinner. In total, 29 Ampatuans and their allies were also charged and fifteen family members ultimately stood trial. They were joined by over 60 police officers, local politicians and members of the clan’s private militia. Altogether, more than 200 people were charged in connection with the massacre. Over 40 of those indicted went into hiding and have never been found.

A long trial

The trial began on September 8, 2010, ten months after the attack involving 200 defendants and 300 witnesses. But from outset, it became clear the wheels of justice in the notoriously underfunded Philippine courts were going to turn extremely slowly. As the trial progressed it became marred by allegations of corruption and witness tampering. Lawyers for the Ampatuans were accused of bribery intended to stall or derail the trial. Several attempts were reportedly made to silence witnesses with cash and families were offered large amounts of money to settle the case. Eyewitnesses who survived attacks also refused to testify for fear of retribution, as large bounties were allegedly placed on the heads of anyone who cooperated with authorities.

Of the 115 arrested, only 103 stood trial. Some behind bars were able to escape due to lax security measures and corruption. Another two turned were given a plea bargain after providing evidence, and another three were acquitted for lack of evidence. In a further setback for the families of the victims, in July 2015, Ampatuan Sr, one of those accused of orchestrating the murders, died in hospital. Where bribery and threats didn’t work, violence did. At least three witnesses were shot and killed throughout the proceedings, along with family members of others who testified.

Despite the setbacks, the trial was finally completed on July 17, 2019. With the final preparations being made at the Manila-based court for the verdict next month, lawyers for the families have said that the only acceptable outcome is guilty verdicts. The most important verdicts are seen as those of the three main suspects: Ampatuan Jr; his brother, former governor Zaldy Ampatuan; and Sukarno Dicay, head of the local police group that set up the checkpoint where the journalists were stopped.

Concerns remain

Despite what appears to be very strong evidence against the accused, pessimism lingers in the Philippines. The Ampatuans patronage network and history of collusion with the police and judiciary leaves nagging doubt in the back of some people’s minds whether justice will be served.

None fear this more than Grace Morales, who lost both her husband and sister in the massacre. Both were local newspaper journalists. “It’s been a long journey over the last 10 years”, she told IPI. “We have a lot of evidence and we’re all hoping for guilty verdicts. But knowing the power and connections of the Ampatuans, we all have concerns.”

“The lawyers believe they have strong evidence, but there are no guarantees”, Nonoy Espina, president of the National Union of Journalists of The Philippines (NUJP), said in an interview. “Money talks a lot in the Philippines and the rule of law is still quite weak. While the Ampatuan clan’s power has diminished, they also still have a lot of respect from their constituents, a private army and vast amounts of wealth.”

Even then, there are concerns over possible retaliation, he added. “14 members of the Ampatuan family who were accused are still in hiding. Others are still in politics as local mayors and they still have a powerful private security force. People involved in the trial have been assassinated in the past. So we don’t know how they will react after the verdict.”

Hope for change

After ten years of waiting, next month’s verdict looks set to be a hugely symbolic moment for the Philippines. For the families of the victims, sentences could bring solace.

“Convictions won’t bring back our loved ones, but it will help us get some justice for those we have lost,” Morales told IPI. “We want to see prison sentences for all those charged, but most importantly the masterminds who ordered the killings. We hoped this can help us all move on with our lives.”

For the country as a whole though, questions remain over what marks the decade-old crime has left on the country. “Guilty convictions would show the world that there is some accountability for the biggest attack on journalists in recent history”, Glenda Gloria, managing editor of the Philippine online news website Rappler and who previously helped produce a documentary about the massacre, said. “It would of course be a victory for the families. But for the country, it will be a hollow victory as things have not improved. The sad reality is that a lot people have forgotten, and journalists continue to be killed.”

Espina from the NUPJ agrees. “Convictions will send an important signal”, he told IPI. “But there are still over a hundred cases of murdered journalists that have not been solved. We want to keep going in the right direction and focus more energy on brining others to justice. But I’m not optimistic as people are exhausted. After the Maguindanao massacre we all thought something would change. But unfortunately, the culture of violence and impunity in the Philippines is just a matter of fact.”

Despite promises from successive governments to tackle the issue, the problem indeed remains engrained. Under the Arroyo administration, during which the massacre took place, at least 79 journalists were murdered, according to IPI’s Death Watch. During the presidency of Benigno Aquino, another 36 were killed. In total, at least 187 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since democratic rule was restored in 1986, according to the NUJP. Of these cases, only 17 have ever been resolved and the Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist.

Duterte government

Ten years after the Maguindanao massacre, the sobering reality is that the situation has improved little. “Under the current administration, the culture of impunity has even become worse”, Espina told IPI. “Government officials have called critical media the enemies of the state and we have a president who is very hostile to media. Duterte remains very popular in the Philippines, so these public attacks create further hostility towards journalists already under a lot of pressure.”

The claims are not unfounded. Under the administration of Duterte, who took power in 2016, 14 journalists have been killed because of their work, according to IPI data. Many of these have been swept up in the brutal crackdown on drug crime, which may have killed as many as 27,000 people, according to the country’s Commission on Human Rights. Extrajudicial killing has been encouraged in part by the president, who has openly bragged about killing.

Such rhetoric has become commonplace. In the past Duterte has said corrupt journalists were legitimate targets of assassination. On other occasions, he has launched attacks on media outlets and called journalists everything from “bullshit” to “garbage”. To make things worse, Duterte selected one of the former lawyers for the Ampatuan clan to be his presidential spokesman. Meanwhile, journalists continue to be killed with impunity. Three have been murdered so far this year, including radio host Eduardo Dizon and tabloid columnist Jupiter Gonzales. Just last month, radio journalist Dindo Generoso was shot dead in his car in Dumaguete City.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, there have been some steps forward. In 2016, Duterte established a Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), which appointed 350 prosecutors nationwide as to investigate media killings. Earlier this month, the Task Force claimed success when a suspect in the murder of Generoso handed himself in to police.

However, as long as the country’s leadership continues to verbally attack media and condone extrajudicial killings, Gloria said, nothing will change. “The culture of impunity under this government has worsened, not improved, over the past three years”, she noted. “I don’t think journalists in The Philippines feel safer now than they did 10 years ago. Change has to come from the top. Until then, we’ll face the same problems as before.”

A decade later, initial outrage and demands for change over the horror of the Maguindanao massacre have not translated into meaningful reform. While the president can claim that some steps forward have been carried out under his watch, in reality, The Philippines remains mired by murder and impunity for the killing of journalists. Guilty verdicts next month will certainly help to begin the healing process for one of the country’s biggest open wounds and deliver much needed justice to the victims and their families. But even then, far more needs to be done to fix a country and a profession long traumatized by a tragic history of violence.