Justice for the 58!

It’s been a year since 58 persons were killed in Ampatuan, Maguindanao and yet despite the short span of time, the memory of the gruesome events of that day seem to slowly slip into oblivion from the Philippines’ collective memory.

In a forum held last week at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications, members of the media, relatives of the victims, and even a representative from the Aquino administration called upon the public to never forget the events on those isolated hills in Maguindanao which shocked the world.

According to veteran journalist and former ABS-CBN Vice President for News Maria Ressa, the Maguindanao Massacre was, in CIA parlance, a blowback. The term first came about after US and British intelligence agencies failed to assess the far-reaching effects of removing Mossadegh in Iran, which eventually resulted to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ressa also cited the 9/11 attacks as another case of blowback after the CIA earlier armed and funded the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, not realizing that the US would become the later target.

The Maguindanao Massacre was the result of a dysfunctional counter-insurgency strategy where the government armed and financed local political families in the fight against insurgent groups. These families, seeing that their mandate requires every available means to end the insurgency in their areas, exercised their power with impunity, ultimately using it even against ordinary civilians and in the case of the massacre, the media. The rule of impunity by political families in the provinces has been going on since the Marcos years and yet it has largely been passed off as usual or in some cases, acceptable. This climate of tacit approval, or worse apathy, has made the massacre possible. “We have known about it for decades, and we have done nothing much about it,” said Ressa.

But the massacre would not have been brought to the attention of the nation, much more the world, had it not been for the inclusion of journalists among its victims. As the Human Rights Watch report chronicled, there have been other cases of torture and abuse, and summary executions conducted by the Ampatuans long before that fateful day in November. But details of those incidents were merely passed around people and places as rumors, being that nobody who witnessed them was still alive.

Seeing that a new family was willing to challenge the much-feared Ampatuans, Mindanao-based Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter and would have been Maguindanao Massacre victim Aquiles Zonio said he decided to join his colleagues in covering the filing of certificates of candidacy by the Mangudadatus on that day. He only alighted the convoy after knowing that a colleague who was at odds with the Ampatuans also wanted to cover the event. Fearing what might happen to his colleague, Zonio stayed behind to convince him to reconsider. That act of concern saved him from the massacre.

It would be a different case however for Reynafe Momay-Castillo’s father Reynaldo. Reynaldo was a photographer for the Midland Review and he was part of the convoy which was supposed to cover the filing of the Mangudadatu’s certificates of candidacy. Unlike the other victims though, Reynaldo’s body up to now has not been recovered. Despite not having had to opportunity to at least see the body of her father, Reynafe said that it would be important for the people to always “think of the lives that were taken,” and that the people should not let the deaths of the victims mean nothing.

In an effort to continuously push for justice for the massacre victims, several journalists, non-government organizations, and concerned individuals formed the November 23 Movement. National Union of Journalists in the Philippines President Rowena Paraan said that the movement has been instrumental in ensuring continued coverage on the latest developments on the Maguindanao Massacre case. The movement and several of its partners have also been responsible for the studies of not less than 70 of the victims’ children. Aside from their commitments within the country, the movement has also been engaging international organizations and agencies asking them for support and assistance in putting pressure on the Philippine government hasten the resolution of the case.

The problem in resolving the case however lies in the institutional weaknesses of the Philippine justice system. And despite the efforts of the Aquino administration to speed up the prosecution of the case, the agents of the judiciary do not fall under the purview of the President or any of his secretaries. We must not forget that the courts are under the Supreme Court. “We certainly don’t want this trial to last longer than it should,” said Presidential Communications Operations Office Sonny Coloma.

According to the calculations of some of the government prosecutors involved in the case, the resolution might take 6 years in the regional trial court, 6 more in the appellate court, and another 6 in the Supreme Court, a total of 18 years before the victims finally and hopefully get justice. Attorney Rico Ayson, counsel for the massacre victims’ families however hopes that the number of years in each stage could be reduced to 4 years, which would mean 12 years. And this he said can only be possible with sustained public pressure for that long period. Whether or not that is possible remains to be seen.

Ayson was not able to discuss much of the case due to the sub judice doctrine, but he said that at present, there are 196 accused, 46 among them have pleaded not guilty, while some have filed petitions for bail. Unlike preconceived notions about the trial, Ayson said that the hearing on the case itself have yet to begin. The court has been only been hearing the petitions for bail and it would might take a while considering the number of suspects in the case. We must not forget that each of those suspects is entitled to due process accorded by the Constitution. And in the words of Secretary Coloma: “Let us remember that despite our weaknesses, we are still a nation of laws.”

As an addendum to Ressa’s call for public vigilance against dysfunctional socio-political structures, Coloma said that “the burden of protecting journalists does not lie only on the shoulders of media practitioners but on every member of Philippine society.” He said that while media practitioners may exercise some form of power with the stories they make and the institutions they represent, they are still vulnerable to threats, intimidation and harm. That is why every Filipino should also protect journalists as journalists struggle to deliver the truth about every Filipino. 

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