Indignation over impunity

MST, 23 Nov

Today is the second anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, in which 58 were murdered. Thirty-two of the 58 were journalists and media workers.

It is no accident that today also marks the first International Day to End Impunity, as designated by international press freedom watchers and media advocacy groups.

At three o'clock this afternoon, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the International Federation of Journalists, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, together with multi-sectoral support groups, will lead the somber commemoration. Participants will assemble at the University of Santo Tomas and will march to Mendiola.

The highlight of the event will be the “trail of impunity” that will be left leading to the Mendiola Bridge. Outlines of bodies will be drawn on the streets to depict the continued killings.


When you talk about impunity and violence against media workers, it is the Maguindanao massacre that immediately comes to mind. This is because this incident marked the biggest single attack on journalists.

Let us make no mistake, however. The problem has existed long before the November 2009 carnage and will continue to do so until the culture of impunity is countered.

According to the CMFR, beginning 1986 up to this month, there have been 182 journalists and media workers killed. One hundred twenty-three of these deaths were work-related, meaning, the victims were killed because of the nature of their jobs.
Of these cases, 46 are now on trial, seven have been archived, nine have resulted in dismissal or acquittal. There have been 10 convictions. No masterminds have been brought to justice. How could our nation not be angered?

Discussions and analyses of impunity have been many, as well. Various causes of this prevailing culture of impunity – largely understood as the impossibility of identifying, prosecuting and making accountable the perpetrators of violence, so that they are beyond the reach of the law – have been offered.

CMFR executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus summarizes the conditions that breed impunity:  powerful persons believing themselves above the law even as they rule agencies of law and order; poor police capability for forensic investigation which leads to a reliance on witnesses; a poorly-funded Witness Protection Program; a judicial system weighed down by rules and regulations that are vulnerable to legal manipulation; and a culture of violence and guns.

Beyond the indignation and the analysis, however, the bigger task is figuring out what could be done to counter the culture of impunity in our country.

United Nations rapporteur Frank La Rue, quoted in a CMFR publication, says: “Impunity mulitplies itself, (it grows) geometrically. Every case that is not investigated is an invitation for many more to come." He thus emphasizes the role of the state. "By not investigating cases, the state is (sending) the message that violence is acceptable.”

Indeed, media groups and non-government organizations can wear black every day and cry out until their voices are hoarse. But without government action, the instruments of impunity cannot be dismantled.


A forum last week gathered representatives of media groups and key government agencies who talked about what they were doing to address impunity – not just against journalists, but against civilians exercising their freedom of expression.

The Supreme Court, Department of Justice, and the Philippine National Police all said they were doing something to improve their capability to run after the perpetrators who believe they can get away with their dark deeds by exploiting the weak links in the system.

The Supreme Court, through Atty. Josefina Guzman of the Public Information Office, said it was taking an activist stand on the issue of impunity, specifically through the writ of amparo and the writ of habeas data. It wants to do more, but court delays are caused, as we well know, by the lack of judges and the restrictions posed by the Rules of Court. Many times, the courts are torn between the need to observe due process on one hand, and expediency and urgency, on the other.

The prosecution of cases is hampered by the lack of competent investigators, deficient evidence gathering, insufficient protection for witnesses, the reluctance of families to come forward, and sheer poverty.

Justice Undersecretary Leah Armamento reported, among others, that steps are now under way to foster greater collaboration between prosecutors and investigators so that they can build stronger cases against suspects.

Police General Ricardo Marquez, head of the PNP's Task Force Usig, pointed out that the greatest source of their problems is the discretion given to local officials in picking out police officials assigned to their area. This inappropriate relationship weakens the enforcement of the law because the police is beholden to, if not under the control of, the local officials. Marquez wants this process amended.

These are just some of the solutions and initiatives to address the culture of impunity. Will they be translated into action, or will the responsibility be tossed from one agency to another? Will the public's indignation be heightened by the absence of concrete reforms despite our outrage?

What will we be talking about on the third, fifth, tenth anniversary of the massacre?

We are waiting for more than the President's unequivocal denouncement of impunity.
We also need swift, decisive and orchestrated action to strengthen the weak links that embolden perpetrators. This administration has shown it could move mountains if it wants to. There is no excuse for simply lighting a candle today and then forgetting all about the issue until next November.