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International Mission demands President Arroyo protect media as elections loom

(IFJ/IFEX) - 22 January 2010 - Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her Government must take all necessary measures to provide local media with protection ahead of upcoming elections, says the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other members of an international solidarity mission that investigated the November 23 massacre of 57 people in the southern Philippines.

Among those killed were 32 journalists and media workers.

"The massacre underlines the terrible dangers that Filipino journalists face. It also highlights the inability and unwillingness of the State to ensure the protection and safety of journalists who are seeking to perform their duties," the mission members say in their report, Massacre in the Philippines: International Solidarity Mission Rapid Assessment, released today.

The mission conducted its investigations in the Philippines from December 5 to 10 in association with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), an affiliate of the IFJ. The team included representatives from leading journalists' rights and press freedom organisations, including the IFJ, Indonesia's Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Media Support (IMS), International News Safety Institute (INSI), the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), Australia's Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Thai Journalists' Association (TJA), and Union Network International (UNI).

"Power-holders in the Philippines must act urgently on all the recommendations of the mission's report to reverse once and for all the country's shameful culture of impunity for the murders of journalists, tragically underscored on November 23," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

As the mission report went to press, the toll of media personnel killed in the massacre was revised up to 32, as it was confirmed that Saksi News photographer Jepon Cadagdagon was among the victims in Maguindanao province, Mindanao. The toll of 32 media personnel includes 31 whose bodies were recovered, as well as Reynaldo "Bebot" Momay who remains missing.

The mission team says that it holds grave concerns for the safety of Filipino journalists as the investigation and prosecution of the accused take place in a tense environment ahead of national and presidential elections due on May 10.

"This massacre, coming at the very beginning of the 2010 election process, not only undermines that process but has dealt a cruel blow to democracy and free media in the Philippines," the mission members say in their report.

They call on the Government to ensure media is able to report fairly and freely on the election campaign without undue risk. The report also stresses concerns about judicial and forensic processes in view of the political ties between the Arroyo administration and the Ampatuan family in Mindanao.

Although at least 100 gunmen are believed to have been involved in the massacre, Andal Ampatuan Jr, the son of the clan patriarch, is the only person to be charged and brought before a court in direct connection to the massacre. He is pleading not guilty.

Among other significant concerns highlighted in the report is the role of Major General Alfredo Cayton, the Commander of the 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao at the time of the massacre. The mission urges a full investigation into Cayton's role and actions preceding the massacre.

Cayton, who denied requests for a military escort to accompany the convoy that was attacked on November 23, was relieved from his position immediately after the massacre. However, he has since been promoted to Vice Commander of the Philippine Army.

The mission further calls for an investigation into reports that several members of the Philippine National Police were involved in the massacre.

It stresses that under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006), the Government of the Philippines is required to ensure its security forces provide the protection due to citizens in areas of conflict within national borders, including media personnel.

The mission, which Arroyo declined to meet, further recommends:

- The Government and local authorities must undertake all necessary measures to fully investigate the massacre and to ensure all evidence is properly preserved and available.

- The Government and local authorities must provide all necessary measures for the protection and safety of witnesses, investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and judges.

- Families must be provided with legal support to pursue the prosecution of perpetrators.

- Observers and human rights groups must have full open access to legal proceedings.

- The Government is urged not to reimpose martial law ahead of the May 10 elections.

The mission report will be officially released in the Philippines today at the launch of an organisation of families of journalists killed in the massacre, Justice NOW! The NUJP and Justice NOW! will conduct a press conference in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, where many of the families live.

In Quezon City, the November 23 Movement, which has been convened by the NUJP, will hold a candle-lighting vigil, among other activities to mark two months since the massacre.

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