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CMFR statement on second anniversary of Ampatuan massacre, "a turning point and a test"

(CMFR/IFEX) - November 23, 2011 - International press freedom and media advocacy groups may have designated November 23 as the International Day to End Impunity, but here in the Philippines, on this, the second anniversary of the foul deed now known as the Ampatuan Massacre, the glacial progress of the trial of those accused of planning and carrying out the killing has become an enormous cause for distress because the possibility that it may drag on for years bodes ill for press freedom, human rights and the quest for justice in Philippine society.

A year ago the pace of the judicial proceedings had already set off alarm bells among journalists' and media advocacy groups, the relatives of those killed and anyone else who still cared about the future of the free press and democracy in this country.

The Massacre was, after all, a brutal attack on the free press as an institution necessary in any country with any pretence of democracy, and on the people's right to choose their leaders. By murdering 58 men and women, among them the lawyers, relatives and allies of a candidate for provincial governor, as well as 32 journalists and media workers, the killers set press freedom and free elections back by many years, and earned for the country the dubious distinction of being the site not only of the worst attack on the press in history, but also of a fraudulent democracy.

Both political and media killings have a long and brutal history in this country. Politicians, their allies and their campaign workers are killed so routinely in the Philippines that every election is always declared peaceful, no matter how many casualties are produced. The Massacre was a crime waiting to happen. The persistence of warlordism, the antipathy of local tyrants toward the press and the many weaknesses of the justice system made it inevitable.

The Massacre, however, was also a turning point, and a test not only of the will and capacity of the Philippine state to ensure the safety of its citizens, but also of its ability to provide them with justice.

Journalists and media advocacy groups knew a year ago, and know it even more now, that, unless the Massacre trial is credibly concluded, with the killers and masterminds convicted and sentenced to the prison terms they so richly deserve, not only will the killings of journalists, in addition to human rights workers, political activists, environmental advocates, judges, lawyers, students, farmers and workers, continue, they will actually escalate.

That distinct possibility makes the Massacre trial so crucial to the life and future of this country. And yet, judging by the laidback response to, among others, the suggestions for reforms in the rules of court that media groups and the Free Legal Assistance Group of lawyers have proposed, the Philippine government does not seem to be in any hurry to address the urgent concerns - for press freedom, democracy and the country as a whole - that the Massacre has triggered.

This simply will not do. The Aquino government must not only take the steps necessary to speed up this trial, it must also demonstrate when journalists are killed that it has put in place the means to punish the killers and masterminds. To do nothing or little can only lead to more journalist deaths, adding to the six already killed in the line of duty since Mr. Benigno Aquino III took office.

Case history

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