Seares: Maguindanao massacre: Ruling strikes some blow against culture of impunity

Pachico A. Seares

ATTY. Nena Santos, private prosecutor for 38 of 57 people who were killed in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, said last Nov. 5 that if there would be no conviction, “I am sorry to say press freedom is dead and there is no democracy.” Thirty-two of the casualties were media workers and Santos represented their surviving family members.

On promulgation day (Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019), Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes sentenced 28 members of the Ampatuan clan and several others to “reclusion perpetua” or 40 years in jail for multiple murders and 15 other accused to six to 10 years in jail as their accomplices.

The 40-year-termers included the Ampatuan brothers, Datu Andal “Unsay” Jr., Zaldy and Datu Anwar Sr. Their sibling Datu Sajid Islam, a town mayor, was acquitted.

Not just one

Press freedom, by lawyer Santos’s standard, was hardly placed at risk. To feel there would still be press freedom, she needed only one conviction. The ruling gave her a lot more.

Three of the 33 persons convicted, a CNN report says, were no less than the sons of clan patriarch Andal Sr. (who was among those arrested and charged but died in 2015, four years before the verdict). Andal Jr. led the private army that stopped and slaughtered the convoy of rival politician Esmael Mangudadatu, with the approval of Andal Sr.

Pitch on press freedom

Santos’s clients were mostly families that had a husband, wife, brother, son or daughter who was killed in the massacre. But it was not only she who mouthed the “assault on press freedom” pitch. So did the Committee to Protect Journalists which called it in 2009 “the deadliest attack on the press.”

The Duterte administration, hewing to that line of thinking, in his very first administrative order created the Presidential Task Force on Media Security tasked to protect members of the press. He declared in his Oct. 11, 2016 order: “All forms of political violence and abuses of power, whether by agents or elements of the state or of non-state forces against the so-called Fourth Estate, must stop.”

That may seem odd in the face of the occasional whiplashes against media by President Duterte. But the task force is there, driven primarily by memory of the Maguindanao tragedy.

The media industry, using the massacre as a rallying cry for freedom and personal safety, and the government, at least officially in a document, both agree that journalists must be defended against violence or harassment.

Protecting citizens

The duty of the state to protect its citizens is basic and primordial. Journalists are not asking for special treatment. They are only asking what is due them as citizens. The nature of their work just gives the request more urgency.

Thus, it did not matter then, when news of the massacre broke, that an abnormally large number of media workers—reporters, photographers, editors and even one publisher and some office messengers—joined the ill-fated convoy.

An account by columnist Manuel L. Quezon III said the entourage was composed of Mangudadatu’s wife, her two sisters, female relatives, supporters and the journalists. Quezon wrote that it was the convention among the warlord politicians that women and children would be “off-limits” as targets of violence.

‘We’d all be in jail’

The big number of media workers was supposed to give additional deterrence but, as it turned out, that did not help.

An anecdote narrated by a trial witness—which can be confirmed only by wading through 761 pages of the decision—reportedly said that when Andal Jr. told Andal Sr. that the dead included “media,” the father said, “We’d all land in jail.”

If true, it meant the warlord still believed in the long arm of the law and still didn’t have the arrogance of total impunity.

A kind of victory

Impunity is what worried Atty. Santos most. If a politician or anyone else believes he can no longer be punished for killing, woe to the journalists who face the risk of reprisal from those who are offended by their news or commentary.

The trial court decision will still reach the Supreme Court where, by the sheer volume of the records, it is expected to eat up more years but maybe in less than a decade this time.

Still, the case has reached a benchmark, a turning point where the victims’ relatives get some justice and the culture of impunity gets a serious drubbing. Rate it as you will but it is some kind of victory.