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Support call for state policy to end impunity

(CMFR/IFEX) - The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has issued a statement on the six-month anniversary of the 23 November 2009 massacre of 32 journalists and media workers:

The election of the new president and the formation of a new administration cast the sixth month anniversary of the 23 November 2009 massacre in a more auspicious light. Or so the undersigned media, journalist associations and individuals would like to hope.

Engaged in the battle against impunity for years, we urge the president-elect, as soon as he is proclaimed, to commit himself and his government to take the necessary steps to shift government policy from the dire neglect and indifference that has allowed so many journalist killings to go unpunished. These require a range of actions to address the poor capacity of the police to investigate cases and preserve forensic evidence, the failure to arrest and detain suspects who have political patrons, and the paucity of resources for witness protection and speedy trials. All of these and more have encouraged the killing of journalists since 1986 to continue.

We call on the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to follow his predecessor in supporting the prosecution of the Maguindanao murder suspects. In line with this, we would like to see current officials and those who will be appointed by the new president to assure the quick resumption of proceedings against the principal suspects and the swift arrest of those still at large.

As outrageous as the massacre was, the case against the suspected killers and masterminds has not progressed as much as the families of the victims, the media community, and concerned citizens have every right to expect. The president-elect's call for the resumption of the trial would address an immediate and pressing need.
The state prosecutors who opposed the dropping of the charges against two members of the Ampatuan clan also need and deserve presidential support. The justice system, thanks to these prosecutors, had initially moved with unwonted speed on the charge of multiple murders. Various journalist and media advocacy groups made it possible for private prosecutors to help hasten the identification of suspects and the preparation of witnesses.

But the trial of 197 accused persons, among whom are leading members of the Ampatuan clan, has been twice postponed due to various technicalities, among them four motions for the presiding judge to recuse herself from hearing the case. The accused are entitled to every legal recourse to defend themselves. But the April 16 decision by the acting Secretary of Justice Alberto Agra to exclude two Ampatuan clan members from the multiple murder charges was viewed by many journalists and lawyers as favoring a powerful family allied with the Arroyo administration.

Agra eventually reversed his decision in the wake of protests by the media, civil society, and his own prosecutors, in a telling demonstration of the indispensable role of citizen militancy in the quest for justice. But his earlier decision makes it difficult to remove doubts over the capacity of the justice system to resolve the case to the satisfaction of the families of the victims, the press community and the Filipino people.

These doubts were inevitable, given Arroyo's expressed hostility toward critical journalists and her administration's consistent failure to address with stronger measures the killing of journalists and media workers, as the number of victims spiked dramatically during her nine-year rule.

Outrage over the Arroyo government's policy toward the media have raised hopes that the electoral victory of a candidate who would protect and enhance press freedom, along with strategies to improve law enforcement and the justice system, would launch a campaign against impunity that will at least reduce the number of journalists slain in the line of duty. As a candidate, Senator Benigno Aquino, III, had announced his intention to hold the Arroyo regime accountable for, among others, violations of the constitution. Such intent would make his administration's authentic commitment to press freedom logical and necessary.

Justice officials may and should proceed with the trial even without a call from the new president. But a presidential statement would be heard by advocates of press freedom and media defense activists around the world as a signal that under a new leadership, the culture of impunity in the Philippines may come to an end.

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