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Philippines 4 August 2006

Open letter to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Dear Madam President,

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom throughout the world, hails your statement on 1 August giving the police and the justice department 10 weeks to solve the murders of at least 10 journalists and left-wing activists.

We hope this declaration of political will on an important issue has not been made just for effect. For this reason, we ask you to give precise orders to the security forces, above all the Philippines Police Task Force, to reinforce or relaunch their investigations. We also think it is vital that you should warn the security forces not to use any extra-judicial means to eliminate critics, including journalists.

In this respect, the accusations often made by senior police and military officers against press freedom organisations are very regrettable. At a meeting with representatives of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, one of the heads of the national police recently accused international journalists’ organisations of being backed by the Communist Party of the Philippines. Such charges are grotesque and testify to a climate of mistrust between the authorities and journalists’ organisations that will in no way help the fight against impunity.

More than ever, we hope for concrete results. There is an urgent need for the killers and above all those who hired them to be identified, arrested and tried. To this end, your administration should disburse funds to reinforce the Philippines Police Task Force and the witness protection programme. A budgetary effort is needed to make good on the announcements.

Reporters Without Borders representatives met the head of the national police and the justice department in Manila in April 2005 and we expressed our concern about the climate of impunity enjoyed by those who kill journalists in your country.

We would now like to alert you to 10 cases of murders of journalists which, according to the information available to us, have not been solved or have been solved only partially. We hope that, within this 10-week deadline, the police and judicial authorities will focus their work on these cases and will step up efforts to arrest those who ordered these murders.

Firstly, we would like to remind you that while the person who carried out the May 2002 killing of Edgar Damalerio in Pagadian (in Zamboanga del Sur province), Guillermo Wapile, has been sentenced to a long prison term, no one has ever been questioned or detained on suspicion of ordering it. The police and judicial authorities must urgently dispatch a sizable team of investigators to Pagadian, where several journalists have been killed in recent years.

The prevailing impunity is especially flagrant in Pagadian in the murder of journalist Edgar Amoro on 2 February 2005. Arrests warrants have been issued for two suspects, “Madix” Maulana and Norhan Ambol, but the police have not detained them. According to a Pagadian journalist, they have been seen on the streets of Pagadian for months.

Rolly Canete was also murdered in Pagadian on 20 January 2006. He was shot by unidentified gunmen who drove away on a motorcycle. Aged in his 60s, Canete hosted programmes on local radio stations on behalf of a parliamentarian and the parliamentarian’s wife, the province’s governor.

Reporters Without Borders would especially like to see the police solve the March 2005 murder of journalist and anti-corruption activist Marlene Esperat in Tacurong (on the southern island of Mindanao). She was gunned down at her home as her daughter and two sons watched in horror. The hit men have been arrested but those who hired them are still at large. While the trial of the gunmen is on track, the presumed instigators, who include agriculture department officials, were questioned and then mysteriously released.

We also urge you to instruct the police and judicial authorities to focus on the murder of radio presenter George Benaojan, 27, who was shot three times in December 2005 by a man using a .45 calibre pistol who had been waiting for him for more than three hours near a market in Talisay City. Witnesses saw the killer take off in a white taxi. Benaojan’s colleagues said he had recently received SMS death threats. He previously escaped a murder attempt in August 2004 in which those responsible were never identified.

Rolando “Dodong” Morales, 43, a presenter on radio DXMD, was brutally killed by eight unidentified men on the evening of 3 July 2005 near the city of Polomolok (in the south of Mindanao).

Also on the island of Mindanao, Armando Pace, the host of a programme on local radio station DXDS, who had often been threatened for his criticism of local politicians and drug trafficking, was gunned down on 18 July 2006 in Digos by two men on a motorcycle - a common method of carrying out killings in the Philippines. Two days after his murder, the police arrested three suspects - the motorcycle driver and the shooter (who were confused, one with the other, by the neighbours and relatives who identified them) and the motorcycle’s owner. They were reportedly released. In late July, two policemen were suspended for trying to bring charges against the wrong person. So far the people who ordered the killing have not been identified.

On Mindanao again, George Vigo, a contributor to the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN), a news agency, and his wife, Maricel Vigo, the host of a programme on radio dxND, who were both also human rights activists, were murdered on 19 June 2006 in Kidapawan by two men on a motorcycle. The police claimed to have solved the case after identifying three members of the communist guerrilla group, the NPA, as their killers. But the victims’ colleagues dispute this claim and accuse the police of being unable to arrest the real suspects. Several sources say the investigation has been politically manipulated and botched.

Ely Binoya, a Radyo Natin political commentator who was outspoken in his criticism of corruption in the local elite, was gunned down by two men on a moped as he was returning home on 17 June 2004 in the southern city of Malongon. Three months later, the police arrested two of the four men they had named as suspects. Both denied having anything to do with the murder. One of them, Ephraim Englis, was described by the police as the mastermind. Despite evidence pointing to his role, he was acquitted by the regional court in nearby General Santos on 6 March 2006.

Finally, there is an urgent need for the police to find Joey Estriber, the producer of the programme Pag-usapan Natin (Let’s talk about that) on local radio DZJO, who was kidnapped on 3 March 2006 by four men outside an Internet café in Baler (in Aurora province). According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Estriber struggled with his abductors and called out as he was bundled into a pickup with tinted windows and no number places.

In the past, you expressed your desire to put an end to the murders of journalists and human rights activists by offering rewards for those providing information. These efforts have been in vain, and both the perpetrators and instigators know they are protected.

The culture of violence in the Philippines is not the sole explanation. It is the culture of impunity, for which senior government officials share the blame, that has allowed the hit-men and those who hire them to murder so many journalists throughout the country.

The solving of these 10 cases is a major test for your government in its fight to combat press freedom violations, corruption and organised crime. If it does not pass the test, Reporters Without Borders will again raise this issue with the United Nations, and with the UN human rights council in particular.

I look forward to a positive response to our request. Sincerely,

Robert Ménard Secretary-General

In this country
22 May - Philippines
A journalist on army target list, another shot, possibly by soldier
6 March - Philippines
Second journalist in a week narrowly escapes murder attempt
23 February - Philippines
Radio journalist gunned down on Mindanao island
5 January - Philippines
Radio show host comes under fire near his home
3 December - Philippines
Second Radyo Natin presenter gunned down in less than a month

in the annual report
Philippines - Annual report 2008
Philippines - Annual report 2007
Philippines - Annual report 2006

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Asia archives
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Asia press releases
3 June - North Korea
Pyongyang judges asked to be lenient with two American journalists
3 June - Afghanistan
US forces arrest a journalist in Khost
3 June - China
“Tank Man” photo displayed outside Chinese embassy in Paris on eve of Tiananmen Square massacre
2 June - China
Blocking of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Blogger deprives Chinese of Web 2.0
2 June - Sri Lanka
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