By Carlos Marquez, VERA Files
Cabanatuan City -- A local television crew in Cabanatuan City is accusing incumbent mayor Julius Cesar Vergara of harassment, although the police refuse to say it is election-related.
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is taking the cudgels for the TV crew, and vowed to dig further into the incident.
Rupert Francis Mangilit, NUJP media safety officer, said the group will investigate reports Vergara snatched the camera of the crew of TV48, a government-operated television station identified with Anthony Umali, who is challenging Vergara for the post of mayor.
On April 27, TV48 cameraman Erme Buendia and his older brother driver-technician Eduardo Buendia were on board the station's van when they took Vergara jogging.
The two were sent to verify an earlier report that the mayor, who is seeking re-election, was drunk while campaigning, and that he had more than the allowed limit of two security escorts per candidate.
In their affidavit, the brothers said it was around 7:45 pm when they decided they had enough footage. They were driving through Aurora-Nueva Ecija Road along Barangay San Isidro when they were stopped by a group of men.
They heard a loud banging at the door on the driver’s side and saw Vergara, looking furious and surrounded by about 10 armed men, who signalled for them to get out of the van. The two saw a white police car with emergency lights on, blocking their way. Two officers inside the police car were later identified as PO1 Isaias Feliciano and PO1 Germino Geminez of the Cabanatuan police.
“Get the camera,” Erme Buendia heard Vergara ordering his men. They then forcibly opened the passenger seat door and grabbed Erme’s bag, camera and car key. The key was later returned but not the video camera.
After the incident, which they said took place past midnight, the Buendia brothers along with the TV company’s lawyer, filed a complaint at the Cabanatuan police station.
But Ramon Rodriguez, Vergara's chief of civil security, had gone to the police station ahead of them and reported that they knew nothing about the TV48 crew’s complaint.
Rodriguez reportedly said that when they approached the car, which to them looked like a suspicious-looking vehicle, the passengers scampered off, leaving the driver alone. “Seeing no threat from the driver, they continued with their campaign sortie,” the police report said.
A criminal complaint for robbery has been filed against Vergara and 10 of his men before the City Prosecutor’s Office.
When asked by news reporters about the incident, Vergara replied saying, “it was only part of politics."
Meantime in Guimba town, a candidate for councilor was slapped and ganged up on by the incumbent mayor and his friends.
Mayor Boyito Dizon reportedly tried to slap Dr. Felix Lumang, who is running for councilor under the Partido Unang Sigaw.
A report of Radyo Natin Guimba said the two met by chance at a wedding party in barangay Cawayan Bugtong. Dizon reported to the police that Lumang was allegedly drunk and threatened to “slap him (Dizon) with money.”
Dizon was unsure if the words were directed at him, so he approached the reportedly tipsy council bet, and tried to get even by slapping Lumang. When Dizon missed, one of his supporters, Allan Pascual, hit Lumang in the right ear which caused him to fall.
“Others took turns in kicking him while he was down on the ground,” the councilor’s wife, Dr. Rebecca Lopez Lumang, told Radyo Natin.
Nueva Ecija police director Sr. Supt. Crisaldo Nieves said they have not classified the incidents as election-related, adding that they are “maintaining the improving the image of Nueva Ecija” this election season.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)