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Underfunded witness protection programme contributes to impunity

Journalists continue to be gunned down in the Philippines and witnesses look the other way due to fear of reprisals, say new reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).

CPJ's report, "Under Oath, Under Threat", explains that a culture of impunity continues in part because the government's witness protection programme is underfunded and flawed.

According to CPJ, there is a disturbing pattern in the Philippines: "A journalist is shot and killed; local police manipulate the evidence to protect influential people accused in the crime; potential witnesses are intimidated, bought off, or killed so that they never appear in court; the defence employs stalling tactics to break the will of remaining witnesses; the case goes unsolved and the culture of impunity is reinforced."

In August 2008, Dennis Cuesta, a 38-year-old reporter for Radio Mindanao Network, died after being riddled with bullets by motorcycle-riding assailants as he walked down the street with fellow reporter Bob Flores.

Despite receiving a text message threatening to harm his family, Flores is determined to testify as a witness to murder. He entered the government's witness protection programme a week after Cuesta's death.

Flores and his family now live in a safe house that they share with two other witnesses to media-related killings. The programme forbids the use of a mobile telephone that could be used to trace his whereabouts. Flores has stopped working as a journalist. Bodyguards protect him but he worries about the safety of his children, who attend a nearby school. He says the 8,000 Pesos (US$160) he receives monthly from the programme is hardly enough to meet his family's needs.

"I have sacrificed my family, my job, everything for justice," Flores told CPJ. He worked with Cuesta for more than a decade before his murder.

CMFR highlights the crucial role of witness protection in combating media killings. "When we got involved with the prosecution of cases, it opened a whole new area of advocacy concerns," Melinda Quintos de Jesus, CMFR's executive director told CPJ. "These people actually lose their lives. They don't - and won't - know life as they knew it before, once they enrol in a witness protection programme."

In a separate report, CMFR explains that witnesses worry about the loss of their jobs, being relocated and their day-to-day finances. And murder trials last for years. In some cases witnesses have died without testifying and those who do survive end up exhausted and worn down.

CMFR adds that the justice system relies heavily, sometimes solely, on testimonial evidence rather than forensic evidence, as a result of inadequate gathering of physical evidence by law enforcement agencies.

The Philippines placed sixth on CPJ's 2009 Impunity Index, which ranks countries in which journalists are slain regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. According to CPJ, at least 24 Philippine journalists' murders have gone unsolved over the past decade.
Under Oath, Under Threat
Impunity and Witness Protection in the Philippines

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