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Impunity and corruption behind murder of journalists

The massacre of 32 journalists in the Philippines last year is the result of an established culture of impunity and a flawed political system that relies on warlords, says a new report from a fact-finding mission led by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The report paints a picture of a history of power struggles and political patronage that threaten the media environment.

The report, "Massacre in the Philippines: International Solidarity Mission Rapid Assessment", explains that systematic violence against the media can be blamed on the current regime and its failure to quash a culture of retribution toward journalists who report on corruption and political issues. It includes a detailed account of events from the day of the killings.

The IFJ-led mission took place in December 2009 and included two more IFEX members, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and seven other media organisations. This mission built on the initial findings of four local groups who carried out a critical fact-finding operation immediately after the massacre.

Delegates met with victims' relatives, local media, government officials, a forensics specialist, foreign diplomats and many others. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did not meet with mission members.

The massacre took place in November 2009 as a convoy made up of relatives of the mayoral candidate Ismael Mangudadatu, accompanied by journalists and lawyers, were on their way to file election candidacy papers in Maguindano, in the province of Mindanao. Vicious clan rivalry between the Mangudadatus and the reigning Ampatuans in the area attracted heavy media coverage, says the report. The Ampatuans were supporters of President Arroyo at the time.

The Arroyo regime has supported all the clans and promoted the creation of paramilitary groups to help government forces fight an Islamic insurgency in the province. As such, clans have cultivated private caches of weapons and militias, says the report. Government-sanctioned war lords, who are members of clans, run their own armies and essentially govern the region: many hold positions of office, like mayor or governor. The government is obliged to deal with them, says the report.

Filipino journalists will be especially under threat in the lead-up to elections in May 2010 and during the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of the Ampatuan Town massacre, explains the report. Andal Ampatuan Jr., who led the massacre, has been detained and faces multiple murder charges. Many other Ampatuans have also been arrested. "The suspects are behind bars but the way we would usually cover the development of this story has to be strategised," one journalist told the mission. None of the 100 gunmen involved in the abduction and murder of the 57 people in the convoy have been arrested, says the report.

The mission was also told that the killers conducted surveillance of the journalists two days before the massacre and mass graves were prepared. Prior to the convoy's departure, the accompanying journalists requested a military escort and were told by Major General Alfredo Cayton that the route was safe, says the report. General Cayton has since been promoted to vice commander of the army.

The report outlines numerous recommendations. The families of the victims should receive trauma counseling, as well as financial and legal support to pursue the prosecution of the perpetrators. The mission calls for a full investigation into the participation of the police in the massacre and the actions of General Cayton. As well, the government must protect witnesses, investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and judges throughout the investigation, and journalists covering the election campaign. It also calls for the provision of safety training and support for journalists and media workers.

In a separate incident of election-related violence, radio journalist Ismael Pasigna was shot to death in Labason on his way to work on 24 December, reports the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). Pasigna had reported on a controversy regarding the filing of a certificate of candidacy by a political party in Zamboanga del Norte, says CMFR.

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