The Ampatuan Massacre 10 years of fighting for justice

Mong Palatino for IFEX

Ten years. Zero convictions.

Fifty-eight civilians were massacred on 23 November 2009 in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao. Thirty-two of the victims were journalists who were reporting on a local politician who was running against the Ampatuan dynasty. They were slaughtered at a police checkpoint, and buried in mass graves.

Photo Courtesy of NUJP

It was the world’s deadliest attack on the press and the most violent election-related incident in Philippine history. But ten years later, not a single suspect behind this gruesome crime has been convicted.

The court was originally scheduled to deliver its verdict before the tenth anniversary of the massacre, but it asked for another month to promulgate the case.

In the past decade, the families of the victims were joined by media groups and human rights advocates in efforts to sustain the campaign for justice.

Every year, they organize protests to push for the speedy resolution of the case and the ending of impunity for crimes against journalists.

These activities help inform the public about the trial, the state of press freedom, and the role of political patronage in abetting the rise of violence directed against the media and other critics of the government.

The IFEX global freedom of expression network focused its annual campaign against impunity on the Ampatuan case for several years, to draw international attention to the lack of accountability.

Local and global campaigns have consistently criticized the slow pace of the trial and the decision to charge almost 200 persons in the case. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, an IFEX member, describes the impact of the lengthy trial:

“The trial of the 195 accused in Ampatuan Massacre was designed for delay, a nod to another political alliance. A lengthy trial allows more time for highly paid lawyers to manipulate the court system, argue through technical loopholes. Delays can wear down or lose witnesses and their testimonies. Sanctioned by the rules of court, the system seems designed only for lawyers and those who can afford them.”

After almost ten years of hearing the case, the court has already accumulated a total of:

  • 238 volumes of trial records broken down into 165 volumes of records of proceedings
  • 65 volumes of transcripts of stenographic notes, and
  • 8 volumes of prosecution’s documentary evidence.

Will this be enough to convict the Ampatuans and their hired goons?

During the same period, local campaign efforts have never ceased. Many powerful and moving initiatives have kept the cases in the spotlight and engaged the public in pressuring authorities to deliver justice.

Street protests, candle-lighting events, exhibits, lectures, and lobbying efforts were organized across the country. The names and faces of the 58 victims were prominently displayed in campaign posters. A memorial was built in the massacre site where families, friends, and supporters of the victims can offer their respect.

The failure to convict anyone in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre case both reflects and nourishes the culture of impunity, everywhere.

- Annie Game, Executive Director of IFEX

The Ampatuan Massacre reflects the festering culture of impunity which has only gotten worse over the years.

Media-related killings didn’t end even after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. In the past three years, under the Rodrigo Duterte government, 13 journalists have been killed, with most of them reporting about local corruption in the provinces.

The need to speak out against impunity has been highlighted in several videos about the massacre.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) says that the campaign needs help to grow public support:

“While the gruesome incident will never be forgotten, it is a sad fact that attention has also waned over the years.”

That is why for the tenth commemoration of the massacre, NUJP and other media groups have launched a social media campaign inviting journalists and the public to change their social media photos using a GIF of a blinking eye.

The message: We are watching. We haven’t forgotten the Ampatuan Massacre.

Public interest over the issue has indeed risen ahead of 23 November, as journalists across the country held activities beating the drum for justice. In Mindanao, some of the victims’ children are taking a more active role in the campaign.

Photo Courtesy of @EspinaNonoy/Twitter

Nena Santos, lawyer for the victims, warned that failing to convict the Ampatuans would undermine press freedom in the country:

“If there will be no conviction, I am sorry to say that press freedom in the Philippines is dead...Because if nobody gets to jail for killing media people, where is democracy, where is press freedom?”

Free Expression. End impunity.

Visit ifex.org/noimpunity to learn more and find out how to get involved.