ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
On Friday, March 2, another journalist was shot and wounded by two motorcycle-riding gunmen outside his home in Iloilo City in the latest attacks on media men in the country. The victim, Fernando Gabio, who hosts the “Mr. Expose” program on Radyo Mo Nationwide, was lucky he was hit only in the leg and survived.
So far, 10 journalists have been killed in the country since President Benigno S. Aquino III took over in July last year. That means one journalist killed every other month, reinforcing the Philippines’ rank as the toughest country in the world for journalists, trailing only behind Iraq, a nation still reeling from a virtual civil war.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reports that more than 150 journalists have been killed since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. In 2009 alone, 39 journalists were killed, with at least 30 killed in the infamous Maguindanao massacre.
In 2010, four journalists were killed and in the following year, eight more were gunned down. Last year, broadcaster and environmental activist Gerry Ortega was ruthlessly murdered in Palawan. In January, publisher and editor Christopher Guarin of General Santos City was killed in cold blood.
Aside from journalists, activists, human rights workers, students and even politicians and judges have been common targets of such violence.
Just a few days into Aquino’s administration, three activists, including a schoolteacher, were killed by unidentified gunmen. The renewed spate of killings elicited stern statements from the Obama Administration, the International Press Institute, and the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Kabataan party-list Representative Raymond Palatino, citing a report submitted by Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair Rosetta Rosales to the House of Representatives, said a few months ago that Aquino’s human rights record may even surpass that of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The CHR report said the number of torture victims rose to 37 in 2010 from 17 in 2009, and arbitrary arrests ballooned to 85 in 2010 from 61 in 2009.
“President Aquino’s avowed commitment for human rights is starting to unravel its monstrous form. While the record of former President Macapagal-Arroyo remains unbeaten, I am afraid that President Aquino’s record could turn out worse given the rise in human rights abuses under his watch,” Palatino said in a press statement.
Citing figures gathered by human rights group Karapatan, Palatino noted that the first four months of Aquino’s term already claimed 28 victims of extrajudicial killings, which translates to an average frequency of one victim per week. The group has also recorded a total 48 cases of extra-judicial killings from July 2010 to June 2011.
None of the perpetrators of these crimes have convicted. The suspects in the Maguindanao massacre, led by members of the Ampatuan clan, have been arrested and charged, but more than two years since the killings, the cases have dragged on without even having gone through the trial phase despite the presence of strong evidence and witnesses willing to testify.
Just recently, in its World Report 2012, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called Aquino to task, saying “Despite promises of reform, his administration has made little progress in addressing impunity. Extrajudicial killings of leftist activists and petty criminals continue, with the government failing to acknowledge and address involvement by the security forces and local officials.”
“During his campaign for president, Benigno Aquino III pledged to end serious violations of human rights in the Philippines. Yet since taking office on June 30, 2010, the Philippine military continues to be implicated in apparently politically motivated extrajudicial killings—deliberate unlawful killings by state security forces—and enforced disappearances. These abuses persist in part because of the Philippine police’s failure to conduct thorough and impartial investigations, particularly when evidence points to military involvement,” the HRW report said.
The Aquino administration’s political will to end impunity and human rights abuses came under scrutiny recently by Amnesty International. In its Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review on Impunity for Torture, Unlawful Killings and Enforced Disappearances, the human rights watchdog said: “In November 2009, after the Maguindanao massacre, President Aquino (then a senator) issued a statement demanding the immediate revocation of Executive Order No. 546, vowing to “never again [use] public funds to support and maintain a private security force”. Two years later, however, he announced that he no longer intended to revoke it, and instead would “professionalize” the militias.
This inconsistent human rights policy, plus the slow grind of justice, the continued existence of militias, and the failure of government authorities to pursue the perpetrators of these political killings have contributed to the continuation of the culture of impunity that Aquino, while campaigning for office and during his two state-of-the-nation addresses, vowed to end but continues to tolerate.
The Aquino administration has at least two theaters where it can show its resolve to end the culture of impunity – the Ampatuan trial and the prosecution of retired Gen. Jovito Palparan, who went into hiding after being indicted in December of two counts of kidnapping and illegal detention of UP student activists Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno in 2006. Called “The Butcher” for obvious reasons, Palparan was commanding general of the 7th Infantry Group in Central Luzon, when a series of disappearances and political killings occurred in his jurisdiction.
While Aquino pressed the House of Representatives to impeach his nemesis, Chief Justice Renato Corona, and is now doing everything to pressure the Senate to convict him, he has not lifted a finger to hasten the trial of the Ampatuans nor order the military to intensify its manhunt for Palparan. This inconsistency in pursuing justice is not helping Aquino’s reform agenda, and is sending the wrong signals to both the perpetrators and victims of these political killings and other human rights violations.
The immediate prosecution and conviction of the Ampatuans and Palparan would boost Aquino’s campaign to put an end to the culture of impunity in the country, and send warnings to other would-be human rights violators that their acts would not be tolerated and go unpunished.
Being the son of the foremost victim of political killing, the late martyr Sen. Ninoy Aquino, and the icon of democracy, the late former President Cory Aquino, it is incumbent upon Aquino to start taking action against these political murders and human rights abuses.
But can we expect this from someone whose family’s guards met protests of Hacienda Luisita farmers with bullets and truncheons? Can we expect this from a man who finds delight in pulling the trigger of a gun even it’s just aimed at a non-human target? I certainly hope so.