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Still no justice one year later in Maguindanao massacre, says IFEX

A tarpaulin bears the names of the 32 journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre
A tarpaulin bears the names of the 32 journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre

Lito Ocampo/CMFR

One year on, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), the world's largest network of free expression organisations, is calling for justice in the Maguindanao massacre. On 23 November 2009, at least 57 people, among them 32 journalists and media workers, were slaughtered on a grassy hilltop in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines while travelling in an election convoy. The event is not only infamous for being the deadliest act of violence committed against journalists ever recorded - but it also shines a light on the decades-long culture of impunity for the killers of journalists and other civilians in the Philippines, says IFEX. IFEX members worldwide marked the day as a Global Day of Action.

The victims were on their way to a political event when they were ambushed by gunmen allegedly commanded by Andal Ampatuan Jr., a local mayor whose powerful family controls much of the region. They were forced out of their vehicles, lined up and executed. Their bodies were dumped in open pits.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), IFEX's member in the Philippines, says the massacre matches a broader pattern of abuse. "The Philippines is officially a democracy, but the pockets of warlord power that have been allowed to flourish in at least 100 localities mock that claim. In places like Maguindanao, private armies decide elections and also wield the power of life or death over the men and women under warlord rule."

A fact-finding team to Maguindanao in August by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed that parts of the province, including the scene of the crime, remain under the control of the Ampatuan family. In a report released last week, Human Rights Watch links the Ampatuan clan to decades of violence in the province, including torture, abduction and the murder of eyewitnesses.

IFEX is standing behind its members working on the Philippines as they continue to fight for justice for victims and their families, the right to freedom of expression, and an end to impunity in the country - what CMFR says is now "the biggest threat to free expression and democracy in the Philippines."

The culture of impunity "has allowed and encouraged not only the killing of journalists, but also of political activists, judges, lawyers, human rights workers and other citizens. While officially at peace, the killing of journalists and media workers, and of over a thousand others killed extrajudicially, has also made many localities virtual war zones," says CMFR.

For instance, as the trial of the perpetrators is going forward, most suspects remain at large. According to CPJ, of 196 suspects in the massacre, 19 are now on trial and 47 are in custody but not yet charged. More than 100 remain at large, including 10 police officers and four soldiers.

Sadly, this is in keeping with the Philippines track record on impunity: by CPJ's count, 68 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines in the line of duty since 1992. In that time there have been only five convictions.

Over the past year, IFEX members have reported that family members and witnesses to the massacre have been offered bribes, intimidated or even killed, and that the investigation may have been so sloppy that forensic evidence has been compromised. For instance, Human Rights Watch notes that some officials did not wear gloves at the scene. Even the number of victims is up for debate: the dentures and identity papers of a 61-year-old photojournalist were found at the scene, but his body was never recovered.

One key witness, Suwaid Uphan, was killed in June after he admitted on television to being part of the seven-man death squad that carried out the killings and named other suspects.

The handling of the investigation has become a test of the country's cumbersome court process and a measure of the new government's commitment to reform. President Benigno Aquino, elected in June, has promised to hold the killers accountable and to dismantle the network of powerful clans and private armies that flourished under the previous administration.

But IFEX members say he is falling short on his promises, especially because of the slow pace that the investigations are being handled. CMFR say that under the existing judicial system, the trial of the accused could take a decade or more.

Twelve IFEX members, along with other media support organisations meeting this week at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss international partnerships, called on national governments around the world to put pressure on the Philippine government to direct the courts to nominate a timeframe for the arrest, trial and prosecution of all 196 suspects.

Amid fears the perpetrators of this particular atrocity may escape justice, IFEX members have joined family, colleagues and media and human rights groups both in the Philippines and around the world to ensure the world remembers what happened. There was a candlelit march and benefit concert in Manila, a motorcade in Maguindanao to the site of the crime, an IFJ-led e-postcard campaign demanding justice, and security training workshops for journalists in the Philippines. Says CPJ, "All events share the same message: never forget and never again."

CPJ has put together highlights of these events and more, including ways to get involved and learn more about the massacre. Access it here.
Also see IFJ Asia-Pacific's website for more information on the 23 November Global Day of Action.
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